Learning from students

The Frisch School. (Facebook)
The Frisch School. (Facebook)

I graduated Yeshiva College in 1968. It was quite a tumultuous year as some of you remember and others have learned about in your American history/studies classes. Lots of great music, Apollo 8, and the Prague Spring. But also the Pueblo incident, the subsequent overthrow of the Prague Spring, the reemergence of Nixon and his defeat of Humphrey, the Chicago Democratic convention, civil rights unrest, and, the dagger in our hearts, the Kennedy and King assassinations.

But overshadowing everything was the Vietnam War. In January we awoke to the Tet Offensive, and I doubt a day went by where I didn’t have a discussion or debate about the US’s involvement. It weighed on the minds of all Americans and on the souls of many.

In our yearbook, there was a single full page devoted to the war. Not the dedication; that was to two beloved teachers, one in Jewish studies and the other in chemistry — the perfect combination of YU’s motto, Torah U’Madda. The page about the war was different and said, in part, “To those who have lost their lives so that we may be free,” with a picture of a soldier tending to his dying comrade.

Sounds surprising that a college yearbook in the late ‘60s would have such a hawkish reference, but YU in 1968 was a very conservative (small “c”) school with, at that time, a majority of students still supportive of America’s involvement in the war. I was in the minority and therefore didn’t like the page; I wanted a more dovish one. But we discussed it at length (I was an associate editor), and I lost. Notwithstanding the loss, I understood that it was critical that something about the war appear; something that showed we were more than just another graduating class; something that reflected the world of 1968 that we were living in; something that removed us from our ivory tower and thrust us into real life.

This brings me to the brouhaha over Frisch Yeshiva’s 2021 senior yearbook. Like mine, this yearbook has a dedication page that speaks to the soul of the school — the yearbook is dedicated to the memory of three major rabbinical leaders that our community recently lost: Rabbis Norman Lamm, Jonathan Sacks, and Dovid Feinstein.

But there’s also an In Memoriam page that extends beyond our own community; a page about one of the major issues gripping our country today; a page, personally signed by the editors, which remembers, honors, commemorates, cries for, and says goodbye to a number of African Americans who lost their dignity and their lives to police violence, without the “justice for all” promised in the Pledge or the due process guaranteed in the Constitution. These students understood, as did my classmates, that as students they must engage with the issues of the day including forming opinions about those issues, and that it was important that their yearbook reflect this.

And how were they treated by some? Unfortunately, with a lack of understanding and, sadly, even scorn.

The lack of understanding was in a column by Rebecca Sugar entitled “The Frisch Moment,” which originally appeared on the Jewish News Syndicate’s webpage. Opposed to the In Memoriam page, she criticizes the teachers and administration for not saying “no” and stopping the page; she attacks them, in effect, for approving the students’ recognition that there’s life outside Frisch’s four walls. And she argues further that students expressing opinions in a yearbook is “improper” and not done in “an appropriate time and place.” She thinks 17/18-year-olds, some of whom can vote and all of whom are on the cusp of leaving home to begin lives away from their parents in college or Israel (some, perhaps, even to serve in Tzahal), are too young “to fully understand the issues about which they are speaking.” Let me translate that last phrase for you: “They don’t agree with me about this issue so they’re too young to understand it.”

What really happened? The students had an opinion, wrote the page, and then followed all the rules without sneaking behind anyone’s back. They showed the page to their faculty advisor and the administration, and, as I understand it, there was discussion and compromise, give and take, language added and deleted, until all agreed that it could appear. Clearly, those who actually talked to the students and heard them out about the page think the students understand the issue just fine.

And what a wonderful educational experience! Students working with teachers and administration, views exchanged, everyone being heard, the authority card not being used, and changes made with everyone giving a little and leaving the room better understanding the others and their opinions. Exactly what education should be; not the dreary “keep your noses buried in your books; we’re not interested in what you’re thinking about outside of your classes (unless you agree with me)” attitude of the page’s opponents. But I’m not surprised. As a parent of four Frisch graduates, I know well the terrific education its students receive which extends beyond textbooks and curriculum.

But even worse than the misreading of the event and several factual errors in the column, was the disdain for the students that came across in an ad placed in the Jewish Link by an anonymous group calling themselves “Loving and Respectful Frisch Parents (frisch4truth@gmail.com).” The ad, essentially a parody of the In Memoriam page, followed it in outline and much language, but substituted the names of police officers killed in the line of duty and children killed by criminals. In a vacuum there might be little, or for some nothing, wrong with the ad. But the snarkiness of the email address (as if they alone have the “truth”) and the context in which it was printed — as a response to and belittling of the In Memoriam page — reeks of contempt and condescension for the student editors.

It was, however, even worse. Publishing the ad anonymously was cowardly; the parents didn’t even have the guts to personally stand behind their opinion. Just compare “Loving and Respectful Frisch Parents” (sic) to five high school seniors with enough discipline, self-assurance, and courage to put their names behind their beliefs. As I’ve written before, I hate anonymous letters (“Dear Anonymous: Stop Mailing it In”; “The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths”). But this? While I don’t like it when people send me such letters, I’m a big boy and I can easily slough it off and dump them in the trash along with the rest of the garbage. But hiding behind the curtain of anonymity while attacking students? Teenagers? Your children’s friends or your friends’ children? That’s really low. And not a good way to educate or engage in open dialogue.

But since I didn’t really know all their thinking, I emailed them with my name and cell number, saying I write a column for the Standard, and asking to speak to someone about the ad. As you might expect, no response yet and I’m not holding my breath.

I’m proud of Frisch and its teachers and administrators for educating our youth in a serious and honest manner. I’m proud of the five student editors who showed care and empathy for those mistreated in our society, who expressed themselves carefully and thoughtfully, and who handled themselves with dignity. And I’m proud to say, in a paraphrase of Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud (Ta’anit 7a), that while we adults have learned much from our friends and our teachers, in this case we — and I wish I could include the “respectful and loving parents” in this “we” — have learned more from our students.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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