By Carin M. Smilk
(JNS) Like any American high-schooler, Riva Weiss started the school year off with a flurry of activity, albeit with a new development she has been mulling over since late spring. That’s the start of the Association of Jewish Students, a Jewish club at Niles North High School in Skokie. Its goal is educating fellow students about holidays, traditions and history.
An Israeli club had already been active there, but what prompted Weiss, 15, and other Jewish teenagers to begin the new club was when the school district listed an optional educator’s training course called “Teaching Palestine,” with content that became an immediate cause for concern.
Objectives of the course, according to printed materials, include a focus on the political context of the Israeli “occupation” of “Palestine” and the Palestinian liberation struggle; strategies on how to respond to Zionist curricula, or when parents/staff/others object to anti-Zionist curriculum; and connections between “Palestine” and issues affecting students, such as state/police violence, the struggle for racial justice in America, settler colonialism in “Palestine” and the United States, and access to education for historically marginalized youth.
“I was very upset,” says the 10th-grader about hearing the news. “My religion matters a lot to me. I am a Jew, and I’m proud; my home and school are the two most important things to me.”
She and about a dozen other students met at their CTeen (Chabad Teen Network) chapter, led by Rabbi Yochanan Posner, to talk over issues and feelings the course engendered. At the same time, some Chicago Jewish organizations and rabbis began an effort to have the course cancelled. Soon after, the district retracted the class from its list of offerings with apologies for not realizing “the one-sided nature” of a course, it stated, that “addresses a very complex topic.”
“When it was removed, I literally jumped up and down,” said Weiss. “I definitely felt empowered. It can be hard to be open about your religion in a public school, but I don’t want to be afraid; I want to show who I am. I grew from this.”
Jac Copeland, also in 10th grade at Niles North and who is helping to form the Jewish club, was likewise in disbelief at first. He says that even after the quick action of the school district and the removal of the course, “the fact that it happened, we weren’t going to let it slide. We had another meeting on what teens can do, where to go from here, and we decided on the club. It’s for Jews and non-Jews, so we can share information and promote education about Judaism, and get to know each other more.”
Weiss and Copeland are also involved with the Israeli club, which focuses more on the culture of the Jewish state.
“We realized,” says Copeland, also 15, “that a lot of kids don’t know much about Judaism and the issues we face as Jews, particularly in this polarized environment of ‘I’m right, and you’re wrong.’ We can’t just push each other away; we have to open access for learning. And we need to present facts without biases.”
Posner, director of the Skokie CTeen chapter, says the energy of the students is telling; that they were the ones behind the launching of the new club, and he is there to support them.
“There are strong feelings out there,” he says. “They have ideas, insight, sophisticated opinions and they can make a difference. Don’t ever underestimate the power of young people.”
He believes that the school district consists of “good people who are not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel; they simply didn’t understand the nuances of the course” or the consternation it would engender. Posner credits the school district for working quickly and decisively to correct what he feels was “an innocent mistake.”
What he can do as a religious adviser, he explains, is “to give students the knowledge and the tools to expose their Jewishness in a positive way,” and what the teens can do together at school is “to educate non-Jewish students and teachers about Judaism. Through familiarizing them with who we are, we hope to reduce anti-Semitism.”
He is being assisted on the school premises by special-education teacher Dr. Anne Zavell, the club sponsor. She has taught for 33 years, 26 of them at Niles North. Zavell notes that the population of both the community and the school has changed over the decades; that back in the 1980s, it was actually known as “a Jewish school.”
Now, with a mix of different ethnicities, including a sizeable Muslim population, a need has arisen, she adds, for more information.
“I think the kids are very brave to show they are Jewish, to be so visible—not hiding their identities and wanting others to understand them. It also gives them an understanding of what to expect after high school,” says Zavell, when they leave the so-called “bubble” of their community and of Chicago-area Jewish resources.
Assaf Grumberg of the Midwest office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that the issue with the course in question, like other Palestinian-related curriculums circulating through the United States, has to do with legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies versus anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews.
“There are stronger and stronger attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel,” he says. “There is increasingly venomous anti-Semitic content that is easier to recognize,” at least, for those familiar with the material.
The teacher’s course “was not factual,” says Grumberg. “The community at large protested it; they would not accept anti-Semitism as fact.”
As for the teens, he said that what happened in Skokie represents “the core of activism.”
“These are the students you’re always looking for. These are leaders. These are the people who say, Hineni: ‘We are here.’”