The last two years have been a dark and frightening time for Jews and other marginalized communities in my school district of Central Bucks, Pennsylvania. In 2021, our school board was taken over by the far right extremist group Moms For Liberty. During their time in power, the school board majority secretly conspired with the Independence Law Center to institute a series of discriminatory policies targeting our most vulnerable kids.
One of these new policies, Policy 321, purported to promote “neutrality” in the classroom. The policy banned the “use of speech, conduct, or symbols to support or oppose a particular point of view or belief about partisan, political, or social policy issues or matters.” The vague nature of the policy created an environment in which many teachers were afraid to introduce subject matter that could be considered remotely controversial by anyone. What this meant, in practical terms, was that pride flags were removed, classroom conversations were limited and classroom art that “took a side” was taken down.
Some conservative parents felt like this policy would protect students from having political opinions pushed on them by teachers, while more moderate and liberal community members worried that the policy would restrict healthy dialogue and further alienate marginalized students. Students who were part of the LGBTQ community felt particularly targeted, as their sexual and gender identity were now labeled as something political.
All of these concerns came to a head when a high school librarian put up a poster with Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel’s famous quote, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Our district leaders deemed the poster to go against Policy 321 and instructed it to be removed immediately. The librarian was devastated, our local Jewish community was shaken and the repercussions of what it meant to be “neutral” really began to be felt.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed antisemitism in our district. At a school board meeting in November 2021, a man used his public comment time to spew hateful antisemitic rhetoric. When I stood up and protested, the school board president threatened to have me, not him, removed. The very next meeting, our Jewish community showed up in big numbers to protest how the incident was handled. Still, the school board leadership remained silent.
Now, two years later, after a groundswell of community activism against the bigotry of the school board, a new democratic school board has been sworn in. There is a lot of hope that this new board will bring back civility and inclusivity to our district.
Still, there is a lingering sense of uneasiness in our Jewish community. At a time when antisemitism is raging across the country, political affiliation does not necessarily indicate allyship.
So, when we gathered last Monday night for the swearing in ceremony, we were all eager to see a sign that this new board leadership would understand how vulnerable many of us feel right now and take a stand as strong supporters of our Jewish community.
We didn’t have to wait long. Before even stepping into her new position as School Board President, School Board Director Karen Smith decided against the tradition of being sworn in on the New Testament and instead chose to take her oath on a stack of commonly banned books. At the top of the stack was Elie Weisel’s “Night.”
I was sitting next to a Jewish friend during that moment and I could see the relief in her eyes. When it feels like much of the world is against us, this symbol of solidarity and allyship moved us both to tears.
When asked about why she chose that particular book, Smith said, “I placed ‘Night’ at the top because for the voice of such an important author and humanitarian, a Nobel Peace prize winner, to be challenged and removed, even though it was only removed very briefly, just truly sums up the magnitude of what’s happening here and around the country. The freedom to read and the freedom to think freely is under attack.”
As important as the symbolism of including “Night” for her swearing in was, we need more than nice gestures. The hatred that has grown in our community over the last few years continues to endanger us all. We have watched as dozens of Jewish and other marginalized students came to board meetings over the last two years and begged the district to provide them with more support. We have seen how the divisive policies turned neighbors against neighbors. And we have felt the fear of having leaders who compromised the safety of our community for their own perceived interests again and again.
Immediate and concrete steps were needed to undo the damage of the last two years and ensure that our kids feel safe and welcome in our schools. It wasn’t until Smith used her new role as president to table Policy 321, along with Policies 109.1 and 109.2 that banned “controversial” books and Policy 123.3 that targeted trans athletes, that I truly began to believe that real change was finally happening.
Watching our new school board president work to undo the bigotry that has plagued us in the last two years gave me a great deal of comfort and hope for the future of our district — and what it could possible mean for our country at large. After two years of darkness in our community, we are finally beginning to see the light.