My family is not unfamiliar with being vigilant. We are always aware that we live in a country in which we are a minority as Jews — especially where we live, in Whitefish, Montana. We are always listening to voices in the classroom, the news, and on the streets.
Our family moved to Montana from New Jersey for a change in lifestyle and surroundings. We welcomed the opportunity for our kids to learn how to maintain their Jewish identity when they are not surrounded by Jews. I enjoy being a part-time rabbi focused on outreach and engaging Jews in meaningful gatherings and learning. I am also a rabbi in a town that is home to one of the leaders of the “alt-right” movement and “white nationalism”, and a county that brought a man to trial for tweeting threats to put two bullets in the head of a rabbi and shoot up a school.
Every day we are learning how to speak up and face down hatred. Last year, my son’s middle school learned what happened on April 20 — Hitler’s birthday. The seventh grade boys sang “Happy Birthday” to Hitler during lunchtime. After this happened we learned from my son that the song leaders had been making anti-Semitic comments and telling “Holocaust jokes” in my son’s presence. My son is one of four Jewish-identified kids in his school. While the principal immediately disciplined the students who sang, I met with the principal to make it clear how we interpreted these incidents. This was not merely bullying. When a group of students tells another that his community should have been wiped out in the Holocaust, that is terrorizing.
Last year, my daughter had to defend the veracity of the Holocaust to a classmate. In their AP European History class, a student stated that the Holocaust wasn’t really that bad. The Jews had just blown it out of proportion for sympathy. Rather than unleash her teenage-girl-power, my daughter patiently asked her fellow student why he thought this. What led him to this conclusion? In the back of her mind she imagined that he could not have arrived at this conclusion by himself. She refuted his statements calmly and put her faith in her teachers to help this student learn the truth.
When we hear something, we must say something. If our children are unable to say something to the speaker, then we must consistently remind them that they can say something to us. My son had not told us about the “Holocaust jokes” because he didn’t want to repeat them and he said, “I could handle it.” We told him that he never has to handle such things. “Holocaust” and “joke” should never go together. One “Holocaust joke” is one too many.
The movie “Denial” is showing around the country and I am advocating for it to be shown in our neighborhood. It is the story of Deborah Lipstadt, who spoke out and fought in Britain’s courts and the world press against all those who would deny the Holocaust. We not only need to refute Holocaust-deniers. We also need to strengthen those who are hesitant to speak out. I hope that every teenager and adult who is able to will see the movie and share its lessons with friends and family.
After the surprising results of this presidential election, we are all opening our eyes to a new reality. The future will be moving in a different direction than some of us had hoped. We also realize that our understanding of the past was not necessarily as clear as we thought. There were voices and stories out there that were not being heard by the other side. This is still happening, and it must stop if we are ever going to truly be the United States of America.
What I do know about the future is that I will continue to speak out and encourage my children to do the same. If you hear something hateful, say something. Not something angry. Something that questions, challenges respectfully, and something that begins dialogue. Like my daughter asked: “What makes you say that?”; “Why do you think that?” And if our children are unable to say something in the moment, they must be encouraged to tell a trusted guidance counselor, teacher, and their parents. My son could continue going to school because he felt the strong support of his principal, teachers, and classmates.
Teenagers do not like to be singled out. They do not like to report inappropriate behavior or speech to adults because they do not want to continue to be singled out. It is up to us to instill in our teenagers that speaking out is their duty as a citizen. If someone is speaking hateful words, terrorizing a minority, or oppressing an “other,” we cannot allow it. If we want to live in healthy communities that represent the best of our democracy, we must speak up and open up conversations as much as possible.
Now is not the time to retreat. Now is not the time to withdraw to insular communities. Now is the time to listen to our neighbors. Now is the time to hold each other accountable. Now is the time to make sure that our communities will be led and filled with people who respect each other and care for each other.