Monday, January 15, 2007

Today Could Have Made a Difference

Today is a national holiday in honor of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Across the country, banks, universities, securities markets, and government offices remain closed in honor of this great man, and of the civil-rights awakening which he led.

And, across the country, all school-aged children remain home in observance of this day.

Well, almost all children.

All children except Orthodox Jewish children, at least in the vast majority of Yeshivos and day schools.

For them, school is open, with a regular class schedule in place, and the day passes with hardly a notice.

My youngest son, who attends a fairly liberal modern orthodox day school doesn’t even have an assembly to tell the students about the day. If it weren’t for the lack of school bus service, there wouldn’t even be a mention of it.

There are many things which bother me about this.

First, and of least importance, this is a national holiday, and we do, after all, live in America. Most of these same schools are closed on Thanksgiving, President’s Day and Memorial Day. And, if we are reticent to show respect to this country which has given us so many things, at least we can heed Hillel’s warning “Al tifrosh min hatzibure” (“Do not separate yourself from the community”) (perek 2:5).

Second, there is a simple principle of ‘Hakarat Hatov’ showing appreciation for a good deed. It requires a high degree of myopia to not realize how much the orthodox community has benefited from all of the legislative and cultural tolerance which has been the outcome of the Civil Rights revolution. Each time we can wear our kippot to work, or leave early for shabbos, or buy a home in a non-Jewish neighborhood or keep our jobs in spite of the numerous holidays of our own which we observe, we owe Dr. King and the movement which he led a debt of thanks.

I could just end my post here and let this go as simple lack of sensitivity within our community. Our community has enough detractors without adding my voice. But, if I did, I would be overlooking the most disturbing aspect of this problem.

Our children do not associate with black children. They do not go to school with them, they don’t play with them, they don’t do extra-curricular activities with them. And we - the adults - also have very minimal (or no) social contact with blacks.

We carefully insulate our community against those who are different from us. And, when there is no contact – no personal experiance of others – the ground is fertile for the breading of hatred, fear and prejudice.

In the years which have passed since I was in school, the orthodox community has learned to be far more careful and political correct. But I don’t think that it has become less prejudiced. Blacks are routinely referred to as ‘shvartzas’. Racial jokes still circulate in our schools – sometimes not only by students. And there is probably not a single orthodox school in New York who employs a black teacher or administrator.

I am sure that most of my readers would rush to argue with this, either in whole or in part. But actions speak louder than words.

What lesson are we teaching our children when we open our schools today? Are we teaching how reprehensible and immoral racial discrimination is? Are we teaching how fundamentally wrong it is to believe that someone’s skills or character is different based on the color of their skin? Are we teaching that eradication of prejudice and hatred is a moral priority for all of us?

Or, are we reinforcing all of the negative and prejudiced ideas that we overtly or covertly teach them the other 364 days of the year.

It is time for us to wake up and take a clear look at ourselves. It is time for us to stop being the ‘deep south’ of the 21st century.

Let us start to take some real and effective steps to change the message which we are sending to our children. Let us invite black teachers to our schools to teach our children. Let our schools participate in inter-racial programs so that our children can meet and get to know children of color in a positive manner. Let us teach civil rights not just as a history lesson, but as a moral imperative. Let us hear our Rabbis and teachers darshan on the importance of tolerance and brotherhood.

And let us properly honor this great man. Let us close the schools.

In the meantime, perhaps all of us who are parents could spend a few minutes talking to our children about the meaning of this day.


Blogger kao2015 said...

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January 15, 2007 5:38 PM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

Nice essay and what do you get? Spam.

Anyhow, you're dreaming. Just like MLK.

January 15, 2007 6:21 PM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Parents talk to the kids? Most of the parents are working - if you aren't in government work of some sort of other, most business are open IME. Better to have school and devote some time to talking about King and the civil rights movement in general, IMVHO.

January 15, 2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


I think that closing the schools sends a much clearer message than a little talking. Or, at least, keeping them open does damage which can't be fixed with a little talking.

And I think that parents can spare a few minutes to talk to their kids. If they can't, they'll have far more serious problems than this on their hands.

January 15, 2007 10:37 PM  
Blogger jewish philosopher said...

What about Columbus Day? Without Columbus, where would we be? Starving in Europe? Perhaps we should make more effort to befriend our Italian neighbors as well.

January 16, 2007 10:36 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

I don't disagree with the message of the post, but I'm not sure how effective the whole closing the schools thing is in general as a commemoration. I really doubt most public school kids spend the day in contemplation of MLK's greatness. is that what they do on Memorial Day? or President's day? bc I didn't, when I did get off for days like that.

January 18, 2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


I agree. But it's the message in the negative which bothers me. If we weren't so far behind on race relations, I don't think this would be as important.

January 18, 2007 12:17 PM  
Blogger Kyaroko said...

This is a really beautiful post.

January 18, 2007 3:21 PM  
Blogger Treifalicious said...

AMEN - as a Black Jew I LIVE with the results of the insular Orthodox education system when I get insulted and given the cold shoulder by my Orthodox peers at Jewish social events and shuls in NYC.

Therefore, I just avoid the Orthodox world.

How many people do you think avoid Orthodox Jews because their experiences with them lead them to believe that they are obnoxious and narrowminded racists?

January 22, 2007 12:50 AM  
Blogger dbs said...


I remember you writing a little about this on your blog a while ago. It's a problem, and since there's realy nothing that will change it in the short run, I think that it does drive people away. The more modern sector is better, and (my theory, at least) is that Israel is better - they at least don't have the american racist history.

January 22, 2007 9:16 PM  
Blogger Treifalicious said...

Dbs - You are right that Israel is generally better, but the problem there is that they get all this garbage from the American mass media that includes all kinds of stereotypical images about Black folk. That and many Israelis are EXTREMELY provincial. I met a good number of Israelis who had never been outside teh country even to go to teh Sinai, so all they have to go on is stereotyoes from TV and any contact they may have with tourists and/or foreign workers.

This provincialism plus teh general lack of self respect as Jews that I saw amongst many Israelis leads to a type of reveling in stereotypes that was quite frankly embarassing to me as an Israel citizen many a time.

The generally better dating prospects it seems there were in Israel is one of the things that makes me sorry to have had to leave Israel. Part of me worries that in my dating adventures here that men do not see me as a serious prospect because I am Black (then again it's not like this was not a problem in Israel either, in part because then I was also a "foreigner" albeit an American foreigner but being Black may not have helped).

Oh, by the way, and YES I DO tend to hang with the more modern/non-Orthodox sector. The Orthodox peopel I know are all Modern Orthodox anyway. I now categorically avoid any social events I see in or any of the 3 main Orthodox outreach/social groups popular on the Upper West Side. (The fact that their parties are crap 95% of the time also does not help).

January 23, 2007 2:44 AM  
Blogger onionsoupmix said...

Oy, first of all, if you really want to fix this problem, you will need to work on the general question of whether all the goyim are worse than all the yidden, lehavdil alpayim havdalos. And this will take you easily in to the next century. But good luck !

February 17, 2007 10:53 PM  

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