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Maugham School Controversy

Friends,

The translator didn’t even need to translate. The tears streaming down her face told the whole story.

I was listening to the mother of the 5th grade student at the Maugham School who had done the project on Adolf Hitler that has been all over the newspapers and social media. Mayor Mark Zinna and I were sitting together with the student’s parents and Lauren Dayton, Temple Sinai member and Tenafly Town Council President, who had invited us to her house to hear the family’s story. (Many thanks to Lauren for arranging this meeting on behalf of the family.)

After several minutes the mother paused, and the translator who had joined us, a Korean American friend, began to translate from Korean to English. She is so sorry, the translator told me. She and her husband were not comfortable with her daughter doing a project on Hitler. They know the terrible things he did. But, because they did not speak English they did not understand the assignment. Her daughter told her that she wanted to learn about where hate comes from, as Asian Americans are experiencing so much hate aimed at them right now. So, she chose a person who was famous for his racist and anti-Semitic hate for her project. Then she just followed the directions that the teacher had given them for the project, which included dressing up as Hitler for her presentation to the class. She did not know she was doing anything wrong. Now she is afraid to go to school as she has heard from her friends that people are saying she did a terrible thing and everyone is angry at her.

I looked at the mother and father and responded, “I understand that you are sorry for what happened but it is not your fault or your daughter’s fault. She was merely following the directions that the teacher gave her. Not understanding the assignment or how it would be perceived, how could you have anticipated what would happen? It was the teacher’s and the school’s responsibility. They put your daughter in a terrible situation. I am so sorry. I would like to share your story with people in my community so they can understand what happened and know that you are not anti-Semitic, that you have a wonderful, bright, sweet daughter who only wanted to learn about the evils of hate in our world. It is so terrible that because people jumped to conclusions, hate is being aimed at her. This must stop.”

As the translator shared my words in Korean with the parents, I saw the father visibly exhale with a sigh of relief. The stress they are under must be almost unbearable. He was so glad that I wanted to share their story.

As I looked at this couple, I thought of my immigrant grandparents who a hundred years ago had to navigate the challenges of living in America without knowing English. My grandparents struggled, no doubt, but they never had to face anything like this: Our modern society with its social media and keyboard commandoes waiting to pounce anytime anyone does something that offends, not waiting until all the facts are in before rendering harsh judgment. It is our contemporary version of what my grandparents called lush’n huru, in Yiddish, or lashon hara, in Hebrew: slander, gossip, inappropriate speech that does harm to others. It was wrong in the streets of our ancestors’ shtetlach and it is wrong now. I ask you to please share the real story of this family with others so this scarlet letter is taken off of this poor child and lovely family. They have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I wish I could defend the teacher and the Tenafly school administration in a similar way. But, I can’t. The reason I can’t is because they have yet to explain in an open and clear manner what happened and why. No one has taken responsibility for the posting of part of this child’s project in the hallway listing the actions of Adolf Hitler on a form labeled “accomplishments,” including the murder of 6 million Jews. No one has explained why the student was allowed to pick Adolf Hitler for this project, which included responding to questions like, “What do you admire most about your subject?” No one has explained what kind of discussion, if any, ensued when the student dressed up as Hitler and presented his story to the class in first person.

On the face of it, it seems like a terrible error in judgment on the part of the teacher. The school administration is admitting to no wrongdoing, however. The statement put out by the superintendent defends the teacher and the school, saying that those who are upset took things out of context and that “the lesson was specifically issued within the context of social justice.” What does that mean? The Holocaust is not taught in Tenafly schools until sixth grade so what kind of context did the students have when they heard this report? Unfortunately, the school has provided no other details. Instead of helping, the school administration’s response has made things worse.

I was part of a meeting yesterday of Jewish and other community leaders whose organizations have large constituencies in Tenafly. We have issued the following statement. Please forward it to friends and neighbors and post it on your social media accounts to get the word out:

We want to assure the community that we have looked into the recent incident in the Maugham School in Tenafly, New Jersey, and are convinced that there was no anti-Semitic intent on the part of anyone involved in this incident. We are confident that the student and family had no intention of harming or offending anyone and should not be blamed or held responsible for the events at the school. The young person involved, an 11-year-old child, and her family have unfortunately been subject to much ridicule and harm, which they do not deserve.

This situation was caused by a series of poor and inexcusable decisions by school personnel and district administrators. This warrants further action and discussion, which we intend to pursue vigorously. Furthermore, their failure to provide clear communication or a thorough explanation to the community has only inflamed the situation. It is our expectation that future communication will be complete and transparent.

Social media has sadly played a very negative role in this situation. We are aware that the surge in anti-Semitism in the country is troubling and unacceptable, but the vitriol surrounding this incident has been misplaced. We urge the entire community to help deescalate this situation for the sake of the students, the community, and this family.

We look forward to coming together as a community to begin the healing process through education, communication, and ownership.

We are preparing a communication to the Superintendent requesting answers and transparency and an opportunity to discuss a plan for moving forward.

Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Kehillat Kesher/Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, NJ, Israeli American Council - IAC, Tenafly Mayor Mark Zinna, Tenafly Council President, Lauren Dayton

In the meantime, let us do our best to support the family of the student by making sure others know they are not anti-Semitic in the least and did nothing wrong. And let us not be shy to demand a full accounting of what happened from the Tenafly school administration and accountability from those responsible. Let us be emissaries of truth and healing.

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Jordan Millstein

Fri, October 22 2021 16 Cheshvan 5782