Speaking up is hard to do West Hartford teen stands up to antisemitism

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – This story begins with an incident of antisemitic language at Hall High School in West Hartford and how it was handled by students and administration. But the story doesn’t end there – rather, it opens up a communal conversation on how kids and adults alike learn to stand up to bullying,

Liah Kaminer

Liah Kaminer

antisemitic and otherwise.

One thing is important to remember when thinking about this issue, says Marji Lipshez-Shapiro, associate director and director of education at the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut Region: confronting antisemitism is not easy. In fact, sometimes even defining antisemitism – let alone taking action – can be tricky. When do you shrug off a comment as an ignorant remark or a stupid joke, and when do you take it more seriously?

First, the Hall High incident: In 2011, then-sophomore Liah Kaminer overheard two antisemitic remarks. In one, two seniors chanted, “Raise your hand like a Nazi” at a school assembly. Later, during class, a boy asked two other students if they were Jewish and when they said no, he replied, “Oh, good. You’re one of us.”

A graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, and a member of Beth El-Bloomfield USY through Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Kaminer says, “I was outraged and hurt because these were my first personal encounters with such insults, since I had been sheltered during grade school. When the incidents first occurred, I immediately complained to my parents.”

She told friends, Jews and non-Jews, who offered kind words. “I wasn’t satisfied with that; I wanted to change people’s minds,” Kaminer says. “I wanted to bring the presence of antisemitism and belief in Jewish stereotypes to the attention of friends.”

She then asked a friend, president of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) at Hall, if she could talk with the group about her experiences. “Many of the comments non-Jews were making were either left unchallenged by the Jews they targeted or were encouraged by them as jokes,” Kaminer says. “So I figured that, by talking with the Jewish club, we could brainstorm a way to address and diminish the incidences. I also wanted to encourage a better attitude than what I had seen so far from Jewish teenagers at Hall.”

But at the meeting, Kaminer says that she was “challenged” by a fellow student, who laughed off her claims that the comments were problematic or offensive. Other students joined in and told Kaminer to ignore such comments and that they would eventually stop. She left the meeting early, surprised and disheartened by the students’ responses. “Especially as a teen, you don’t want to disturb the waters and you’re worried that people will judge you,” Kaminer says. “But then I realized that what are they judging me for was behavior that’s discouraged, especially among teens.”

Next, she approached the administration together with her father, Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, and met with Stephen Armstrong, supervisor of Hall’s social studies and history department. The three brainstormed ideas for a ninth grade social studies curriculum unit centered on the issue of antisemitism, using ADL educational materials, including the “Pyramid of Hate,” which traces how prejudiced attitudes can escalate to prejudiced actions, discrimination, violence, and even genocide.

Meanwhile, Moshe Waren, who volunteers as JSU’s adult leader, followed school protocol and brought the matter to the attention of faculty advisor Tom Devine. The two discussed the possibility of bringing an ADL educator to Hall or referring Kaminer to the ADL’s “Confronting Anti-Semitism” Teen Trainer program, to better equip her to address Hall classes.

“Schools deal with this kind of incident in different ways, like holding a whole-school assembly on tolerance,” Armstrong says. “We thought that it would be more effective to give a presentation in small class settings, and if you want interaction, it’s more practical with 25 kids than with 2,500.”

Liah Kaminer wrote a questionnaire on students’ pre-existing knowledge of antisemitism and examples of antisemitism in history. Armstrong provided ADL educational materials to his ninth grade modern world history teachers and had each incorporate two lessons into his or her curriculum, as preparation for a class discussion to be led by Armstrong and Liah Kaminer later in the year.

Kaminer opened the discussion by asking students to list Jewish stereotypes and define antisemitism. “Kids knew it was anti-something but not exactly what; some said it was being against Jews, some said it was racism,” Kaminer says. “They knew the concept was bad but that was it. There were only a few in the 15 classes we presented to who said they were Jewish; I knew there were others because they go to my temple.”

Then the class watched an episode from the ABC TV newsmagazine and hidden-camera series, Primetime: What Would You Do? In the scenario, two teens ask a bakery owner for permission to post a flyer announcing an event at a local synagogue. The baker responds with antisemitic slurs like “We don’t support Jews” and “We don’t want the Christ-killers coming in here and ruining the economy.”

While the baker and teens are actors following a script, customers in the bakery are unsuspecting bystanders who display a range of predictable reactions, Armstrong says. “One guy agreed 100 percent, a number did nothing or snickered, but there was a surprising number who spoke up,” he says.

Afterwards, Kaminer and Armstrong asked the students what they would do in a similar situation. “A few kids said that they would speak up but a lot of kids sheepishly said – and I would not fault them, especially at that age – that they wouldn’t speak up to an adult,” Armstrong says. “There were kids who said, ‘I would leave and not give the baker my business,’ which is a silent response, but by walking out, you’re staging a protest.”

The discussion then moved to Hall, and whether students hear the same kinds of comments at school and if so, how they respond.

“Virtually every kid said that they’ve heard hurtful things, and when we asked who has ever spoken hate speech, about a quarter or less raised their hands and another quarter would never raise their hands,” Armstrong says. “Every kid would admit that hate speech is wrong but in every class, five at the most said that they would speak up, while the vast number said that they wouldn’t.”

The project will be repeated in ninth grade again this year. But with Kaminer now a senior, she and Armstrong are trying to recruit other students to carry on the work after she graduates.

“For this to continue as effectively as it did last year, it needs to be led by a kid from the school who’s willing to identify as Jewish and talk about their own experiences with antisemitism in the hallways,” Armstrong says. Additionally, this kind of program works best when it is part of the curriculum. “In an ideal world, this would be more than a one-period class and I hope that in the future, we can do more with it,” he says. “The key is to make kids into supporters of one another.”

Armstrong does not shy away from acknowledging what goes on at his school, and what’s more, he is eager to help students and staff alike make it a better place.

“Many teachers would not think that in a place like Hall, which prides itself on diversity and openness, these comments would be made – in regard to race and religion, not just antisemitism,” he says. “Regrettably, there’s more of that than we realize. There have been times when I’ve heard something in the hallway and just walked by, but I’m not going to do that any more. I want both kids and adults, when they know that stuff is wrong, to have the guts and inner will to say something about it. Our work is to get people to change from inwardly saying that it’s wrong and maybe mentioning it to the speaker after the fact, to being willing to say something at the time.”

Armstrong is exploring other ways to get this message out. He met with a principal at West Hartford’s King Philip Middle School, a Hall feeder, about incorporating a similar curriculum unit. “I think this may be more effective at the middle school level,” he says. “Once a kid gets to high school, the die is cast.”  He also plans to discuss with ADL the work at Hall and how best to amplify it.

Along the way, Kaminer learned about ADL’s “Confronting Anti-Semitism” educational program. She has applied to be a Teen Trainer with the program.

While the Kaminers chose not to consult with ADL, “what happened at Hall is a very good result and we should all be gratified,” says ADL Connecticut regional director Gary Jones. “The result is that Liah feels empowered – she took a bad situation and turned it into an educational opportunity, which will make these actions much less likely to occur. There are a lot of good approaches and creativity in helping students respond in a positive way and Steve Armstrong should be commended in helping Liah feel better and making it less likely that these incidents occur again.”

Jones says that ADL has brought its “Confronting Anti-Semitism” program to Hall, but not in several years. The principle underlying ADL’s national school-based educational initiatives is to make sure that no one is isolated or alone when victimized by bullying or bias, and to create an atmosphere where fellow students know what to do in the face of such an occurrence. But the organization’s response often goes beyond education.

“Depending upon the scenario – and we get calls more often than we’d like – we work with the student and family to help design a response that will prove helpful to them,” Jones says. “Pretending that a bad thing didn’t happen is rarely the right response, but there can be subtle and quiet information offered that makes the person not feel isolated and alone, and back in control. If someone’s being victimized, they don’t have to create a response on their own, and that’s where we can be helpful.”

Jones has found that the best result occurs when ADL helps the family get the school involved in supporting the student and doing the right thing in response to an incident. “There’s clearly more than one approach to getting the right result,” he says. “We always target the process to the particular incident that occurred and the victim’s experience, and usually our guidance is helpful for the student and family in trying to figure out how to find resolution.”

ADL Connecticut director of education Marji Lipshez-Shapiro has been working with students and parents for more than 20 years, and knows that the process of evolving from bystander to ally is slow and messy. But both parents and children must be involved in the process for it to be effective.

“It’s not that easy for a teen to sit and talk about these incidents because everybody has different ideas about what’s ‘really’ antisemitism and what’s just an innocuous comment,” she says. “Some of it has to do with personality – are you assertive enough to stand up, how do you find your voice – and even guidance counselors aren’t always sure what to do. Whether it’s general bullying or antisemitism, adults often tell kids to just walk away, but ignoring it does not help. Standing up to bullying has never really been identified as a skill because we say, ‘Kids will be kids’ and the ‘sticks and stones’ adage, which is never true; many lives of now-adults have been impacted by bullying during childhood.”

The ADL’s “Becoming an Ally: Responding to Name-Calling and Bullying” teaches students from elementary school through college understand the consequences of staying silent in the face of other people’s oppression. The key, Lipshez-Shapiro says, “is that we need to teach these skills. We’ve got to tell kids specifically what we want them to do.”

Referring to the ADL’s Pyramid of Hate teaching tool, she says, “If you ignore the bottom layer of prejudiced attitudes, it escalates to the top, genocide. Silence is the fertilizer, it lays the groundwork for more serious behavior, which is why we have to teach how to cut off activity at the bottom.”

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