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Another voice in secular schools Jewish Student Connection

By Cindy Mindell

Jewish Student Connection is a national non-profit organization dedicated to establishing non-denominational Jewish clubs in public and secular private high schools. Based in Port Chester, N.Y., the Westchester-Fairfield County regional office has helped establish clubs in several high schools in Fairfield County, including Monroe High School, Norwalk High School; Stamford High School and Westhill High School in Stamford; and Staples High School in Westport. The clubs are open to Jewish and non-Jewish students to meetings and activities.

Rebecca Shapiro, regional director, and Alli Green, a Stamford High School graduate and now regional educator-advisor, spoke with the Ledger about how JSC addresses antisemitism and other bias.

JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Does JSC address the issue of antisemitism and how teens can identify and respond to it?

REBECCA SHAPIRO (RS): Jewish Student Connection’s approach to addressing antisemitism is proactive as opposed to reactive. We often run clubs addressing antisemitism, either latent or blatant, or general ignorance that the teens face in their school environments. As a group, we try to understand the root of the problems. When antisemitism is experienced, was it out of prejudice? Was it intentionally provocative? Was it sheer ignorance? And, does that make a difference? We have tried to tackle it from at least two angles: In our program “Living a Jewish Life in High School,” we discuss remarks made by non-Jewish students or teachers towards Jewish peers; and in our program “Stereotyping Others and Ourselves,” we discuss intra-Jewish stereotyping and our own roles as Jews in perpetuating Jewish stereotypes, and making antisemitism. Especially in densely populated Jewish areas, our hope is that JSC teens think not only about others’ actions, but also about their own roles is stopping discrimination and stereotyping. This may mean the result is an increased level of consciousness when jokingly embracing Jewish stereotypes. Hopefully our teens will now think, “Did I just make it ‘OK’ for someone else to make this joke about me?”

ALLI GREEN (AG):  Whether running these programs in very homogeneous schools or in some of the most diverse schools in the region, we also discuss prejudice and racism towards other ethnic and social groups. On the surface, this just helps to make the conversation more multi-cultural and inclusive. However, it also helps a Jewish teen, for example, compare how s/he thinks about and reacts to a Jewish joke versus a black joke. We aim to make teens think about personal and social responsibility, whether they’re Jewish or not.

JL: Is teaching teens how to respond to antisemitism a formal part of JSC’s programming?

AG: By covering antisemitism and stereotypes in a proactive way, we provide teens with the tools and ideas necessary for them to figure out how to respond to these things on their own. Just as our clubs and programs cater to the individual school, they also cater to the individual student. Additionally, part of our jobs as Jewish Student Connection staff is to make personal connections to the students with whom we work. In my year or so of experience as a JSC educator-advisor, I have had several one-on-one conversations with students about everything, from our favorite TV shows to bullying and antisemitism.

JL: If a student came to a JSC meeting and reported on an encounter with antisemitic language and/or behavior, what would happen?

RS: Thankfully, we have not encountered any situations similar to what occurred in West Hartford. When we have heard about incidents, we use them as discussion points in our clubs. How did you deal with it? How would you deal with it if you could go back to that situation? Our hope is that through our programming, our teens are empowered to speak up when they are uncomfortable by what they have heard, seen, or experienced. Our program on antisemitism in schools addresses real-life situations that our teens throughout the region have faced, and we present the same scenario, in hopes that, should our teens face the same situations, they have thought through an articulate and intentionally-worded response in advance, and therefore are less likely to respond emotionally. There is a faculty sponsor in the room at all times that clubs meet. Therefore, at the time, and depending on the incident, our “chain of command” is to first address the incident with the faculty sponsor and the involved student, and together decide the proper course of action, taking into account the incident, the school’s policy, and the student’s comfort with involvement. Recently, we were told of growing antisemitism within a particular community in which we did not yet have a club. Though the parents of the teen thought that the proper solution would be a Jewish club, we actually referred the family to the ADL, since this sounded like a community-wide or school-wide issue.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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