Picture it… No, not Sicily, 1922 (hat-tip, “The Golden Girls”), but Brooklyn 2016. There I was, at a public middle school on a snowy Saturday morning, giving my standard, pro-bono talk about “Getting Into New York City High School.” I was at the part where I explain that the way NYC law is written, the Department of Education is not required to offer students a place at any of the 12 high schools they listed on their application form. Kids can be sent to a school they never even ranked, if the ones they did rank are full. (Yeah, it’s an awesome process. It’s why I wrote a book on the subject and do these workshops to begin with.)
A young man raised his hand to ask a question.
“But isn’t it true that all laws were created by Jews?”
1. That’s a new one. I’ve been doing Getting Into NYC Schools talks for almost a decade now, and this is definitely the first time that particular query has come up.
“So what did you do?” friends asked me as I told them this story. “Did you turn it into a teaching moment?”
No. I did not.
And here’s why.
I got up at the crack of dawn that snowy Saturday morning, took two subways, and then trudged 15 blocks through what by that point had turned into freezing rain and/or slush, in order to talk to kids who attend a school with a 100% Free Lunch rate, where the state test scores are in the single digits, and where the wonderful, well-meaning guidance counselors are stretched way too thin among way too many students. They simply cannot provide every child with a detailed look at their every high school option, much less walk them through the process of how to get in.
I did not come to lecture them about issues—like anti-Semitism—that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Our time was limited. These kids’ families had made the effort, on that same snowy and rainy Saturday morning, to bring their 11- and 12-year-olds to school for extra tutoring and direction. I was not going to deprive them of what they so desperately needed because I was personally offended by one boy’s question.
Yes, maybe that one child did need a lesson about how whatever he’d heard about Jews controlling the economy/media/world was wrong. But the other kids did not deserve to lose out on hearing what I’d come to say because of him. So, I prioritized them over him. And over me. And, sure, what the heck? Over the Jewish people as a whole.
So what did I, in fact, say?
I said the first thing that popped into my head.
I said, “Actually, America’s laws were created by the Founding Fathers, not a single one of whom was Jewish.” (I decided not to muddy the waters by bringing up the possibility that Alexander Hamilton might have attended a Jewish Day School in the British West Indies. He could definitely read and write Hebrew, but historians disagree on how exactly that came about.)
“Oh,” the boy said.
And that was it. I went on with my talk without missing another beat. The subject didn’t come up again.
When I got home, I told my husband about it. He offered, “You should have said: only the original 10 laws.”
I’m not certain if the young man would have understood my reference. Though it triggered quite a lively discussion on Facebook.
Now, I’m not saying that I handled the situation in the best way possible. As I mentioned, I blurted out the first thing that came to my head. But, just in case the issue comes up again (I have a lot more talks scheduled), I am turning to the group wisdom of the Kveller community.
You tell me: So, what should I have said?