By Stephanie Smartschan
Director of Marketing
One day after the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 Jews dead, students and parents in the Lehigh Valley gathered at Temple Beth El for a workshop on anti-Semitism.
The workshop had been planned by the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council long before the shooting, but the weekend’s events made it all the more poignant.
Walter Myrick, who facilitated the program for the Anti-Defamation League, urged the students to speak up if they heard an inappropriate response to the shooting when they returned to school that week. Don’t be scared, he said, but be vigilant.
“We all have to be really aware of what’s being said, what’s happening and how people respond to it,” he said. “Even though these things might seem like small things, small things that go unchecked can lead to extreme things like what happened yesterday.” A good strategy for students is to find a teacher they can trust, he said.
In the workshop, Myrick also presented different scenarios and asked the students and parents to decide how they would respond. What would you do if your friends called you “Jew boy?” What would you do if your teacher says to “knock it off or you will find I can be worse than Hitler?” What would you do if you arrived at school and found a swastika on your locker?
There were no right answers, he explained, as the participants chose from options that included do nothing, tell a teacher or parent and start skipping class.
Myrick started the workshop by asking the students and parents to stand if they agreed with certain statements.
Have you heard a joke about Jews that made you feel uncomfortable or uneasy? Almost everyone stood.
Have you been stereotyped by others because you are Jewish? Almost everyone stood.
Have you seen anti-Semitic comments online? Almost everyone stood.
Has someone you know experienced anti-Semitism? Everyone stood. Have you personally experienced it? About three quarters of the room stood up.
Why are the students standing for the same things as the adults when “ideally things should be getting better?” Myrick said. “While I would think it would be a more progressive time, it’s not.”
Rabbi Michael Singer of Congregation Brith Sholom participated in the workshop. While it’s important to be reactive when events like what happened in Pittsburgh occur, he said, it’s equally if not more important to be proactive in facing down anti-Semitism.
“I want to live in a world that is about love and about community and about building community,” Singer said during the workshop. “I thought we had made some progress at one point, but now I feel like we’re back and it’s worse than ever in some ways.”
“We’re going to fight to bring people together and create the world where people not only feel safe, but also a world that’s focused on loving each other and peace,” he said the next day. “I think it’s important to know that you’re not alone and that there are allies and people that we can go to and work with to stand up to hate of any kind, including anti-Semitism. I thought that it was a well-done workshop.”