My first exposure to going to school under armed guard was in the late 1970s, when my family and I were emigrating from the Soviet Union. We stayed several months in Rome, Italy, while waiting for our paperwork to be processed, our background checks, our health screening, my parents’ professions to be analyzed to ensure they wouldn’t be a financial drain on the U.S. Jewish community that ultimately agreed to sponsor us, and so forth.
While we were there, Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS) set up a school for the immigrant kids to learn English. But it was a crazy time. The PLO was (trying to) blow up planes, trains and transit centers housing Soviet Jews, so the Jewish Defense League (JDL) offered the students a motorcycle escort… with guns mounted on the handlebars. To be honest, I had just seen tons of Soviet officers with guns all along our journey out of the USSR, so the sight barely registered.
In college, I was Hillel president at one of the most anti-Semitic universities in America, so armed guards were periodically called out to on-campus events like once, when the General Union of Palestinian Students counter-protested a Yom HaShoah commemoration.
As a result, when I saw armed guards posted at the synagogues my family attended or my daughter’s Jewish Day School (in NYC, the city pays for security guards at religious schools, which is very controversial in some circles), I barely pay it any mind. And that, I eventually realized, was a problem.
Because security involves personnel. And those personnel are not inanimate objects to be walked by like trees or telephone posts. They’re people who deserve to be acknowledged for helping us feel safe every day.
For me, the issue took on an extra dimension because while my children are African-American, in both the situations at our day school and synagogues, it’s majority white families being protected by people of color. I am bothered by how that plays out, even as I understand the deeper cultural and socioeconomic factors involved.
I don’t claim to be innocent—modern life sometimes involves making other folks invisible. Many a time I’ve continued a conversation in front of a waiter or a supermarket clerk or a taxi driver as if they were not there or, if there, not capable of hearing or understanding.
But that wasn’t OK. And it was the security guards who have been there the entire five years my daughter has been attending her school, who drove home the error of my ways.
We should all be aware of this. In the last couple of months, Jews all across the country have woken up to a life with more security guards at their schools, temples and JCC’s. Even though some of the perpetrators were caught this morning (this is the second such arrest, and I presume there are still copycats out there), the atmosphere remains. This is something I’ve dealt with more or less my whole life. (There was even a bomb threat when I worked at E! Entertainment. It happened during a live show, so while most of our floor was evacuated, we sat in the control booth and kept going.)
Those who’ve been reading me on Kveller over the past six years already know that I never tell other parents what to do, what to think, or how to raise their kids. So this isn’t me telling, this is me asking. Respectfully, in this new environment we’re all part of.
Please be mindful of the fact that the people you are entrusting your children’s lives to are people. Say hello when you drop off in the morning. Though, most certainly, don’t distract them or bother them. Wish them a nice day, a good weekend, smile, learn their names, do whatever feels comfortable to you.
Conversely, don’t ask them for special favors. They are not doormen or your personal support staff. They can’t hold your child’s diorama for a minute while you duck in out of the rain, or leave their post to go looking for your straggler in the gym. They are professionals doing a job. Their job is to keep us safe. Your job is to make doing their job as easy for them as possible.
Because, that way, everybody benefits.