Incoming seniors in Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy’s AP English class had one book to read over the summer: “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, about racism in 20th century America.
After white supremacists took to the streets in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, that choice looks prescient and relevant.
While the deadly rally in Charlottesville has had an outsized impact on the cultural conversation, local Jewish day schools say it already fits into curriculum and discussion students have at school.
For example, eighth-graders at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax have a unit on anti-Semitism. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville will serve as a relevant example, said Jodi Hirsch Rein, the school’s principal.
Marchers were seen with signs saying, “Jewish media is going down” and “Jews are Satan’s children.” They threw Nazi salutes and carried swastika flags.
Joshua Levisohn, head of school of the Berman Academy in Rockville, pointed to history and English classes as where Charlottesville discussions will have the most resonance — from the recent slate of Confederate statues being taken down to the long, fraught history of race in America. “Invisible Man” is one example of how current events will play into already planned curriculum.
“As I go around classes, I can hear these discussions taking place,” Levisohn said. “And we want these discussions not to get political, which is a challenge for any educator.”
Other day school officials echoed Levisohn’s sentiment. The goal, said those reached by WJW, was to address these issues in ways that were nonpartisan and educational.
Discussions around Charlottesville haven’t come up yet at the Torah School of Greater Washington, said Julie Malka, the Silver Spring school’s secular studies principal. But she anticipated they would.
Following the Charlottesville riot, the Gesher faculty gathered for its annual security meeting during the teacher in-service week, all a little shell-shocked by what had happened “so close to home,” said Hirsch Rein.
There was a lot of initial processing of the events, she said, but soon the talk turned to how to address Charlottesville with students.
“I think the message to give our kids is that we’re not going to sit quietly,” said Hirsch Rein. “If we can teach our kids to be community builders, then we’ve done our job.”
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville took the step of sending an email out to the school community right after Charlottesville.
“Schools are not advocacy organizations and are not in the business of making statements on political issues,” the school head, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, said in the email. “However, we have a set of values that define the context in which teaching and learning take place and we must be steadfast in teaching and protecting those values.”
That sums up how the school plans to approach Charlottesville, said Marc Lindner, high school principal.
“We don’t want to change our curriculum in response to Charlottesville, or any current event,” he said. “Our plan is to insert it in the curriculum we’d already planned for the year.”
The goal is to teach students to think critically and learn how to digest current events and put them in context. Lindner also emphasized the importance of consensus building. It is not, he said, getting students to think the same thing, but to recognize the nuance of an issue and that it is frequently possible to agree on certain aspects of it while disagreeing on others.
Berman Academy looks at Charlottesville and increasing polarization in the country as a prompt to look beyond the walls of the school — and the Jewish community.
The school plans to launch two extracurricular groups this year, said Levisohn. One will be aimed at initiating discussion with students in a community other than that of the Jewish day school, whether that’s Muslim, African American or other minority group. The second club will focus on service projects in underserved communities.
“The real idea is to bridge gaps and reach out,” Levisohn said. It is important for students to form connections outside their own bubble, he added.
But Charlottesville wasn’t just a major event to be discussed in classrooms. After the spate of bomb threats in early 2017 and now Charlottesville, day schools are putting a focus on security.
The Secure Community Network, a Jewish group that advises synagogues, schools and other institutions on security, has long recommended keeping a plan for emergency notification and evacuation, monitoring buildings’ entrances and maintaining relations with local law enforcement
“The reality is that we all anticipate there will be more problems in the future,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah, a consortium of Jewish day school networks. “The state of the world, the state of uncertainty and attacks that happen generally and against Jews in many parts of the world, the risks of our own national political environment, create situations where threats and attacks can happen.”
Effective and frequent communication with parents is key, said Bernstein, so threats are not overstated or misconstrued.
“How you communicate with the families in those schools is a crucial part of the success of that,” Bernstein said, noting how social media spreads information quickly and often without context.
Prizmah is working with the Secure Community Network to offer security best practices to affiliated schools and help them share relevant experience with each other.
Like most Jewish day schools, the Torah School has been taking its usual precautions of drills and reviewing its security protocols, Malka said.
The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and Berman Academy have both increased police presence on campus. Gesher Jewish Day School, which was evacuated after a hoax bomb threat last school year, has rewritten its security protocols to be in bullet-point form for ease of access for teachers and other staff. And though this wasn’t a change made this year, the school has also moved from a system of code words for drills to being transparent about the nature of each one.
Area day school leaders said they felt they had a good handle on safety and security before these events, even if they are now even more focused on it. From locked doors with key card access only to security camera surveillance, local day schools aren’t taking chances.
But for the students themselves, administrators said, it’s just time for school.
—JTA News and Features contributed to this report