Civic Engagement and Jewish Identity Formation: Responding to Anti Semitism

By: Benjamin Mann, Head of School

As I stood in the voting booth on Tuesday morning I found myself contemplating the news that a White supremacist in Colorado had been arrested for plotting to bomb a synagogue.  The moment felt complex, reflecting for me both how amazing and how challenging it is to be a Jew in the United States in 2019. The experience highlighted for me how important it is that Schechter Manhattan nurture our students’ skills, dispositions, and Jewish identities so that they will be well prepared to succeed in our complicated world.


Voting is a powerful expression of civic engagement within a free society.  The freedom to have a voice in our government comes with responsibility for those choices.  At Schechter Manhattan we teach students the importance of these rights and responsibilities.  On Election Day, students in grades 2-4 participated in lessons about ways that people assess differences in ideas and make informed judgements, and how that connects to the importance of voting.  We also teach students the skills necessary to exercise their voices. Students in grade 5-8 joined our annual 7th grade Election Day Debates. The 7th grade students, who have been studying the United States system of politics and law, presented a series of debates. This year topics debated included whether minors should be charged as adults for crimes, and whether there should be a required year of service for high school graduates.  They had practiced taking both sides of a debate topic and listening carefully to their opponent, so that they could respond effectively. The audience of students and faculty filled out ballots after each debate, indicating which team made the stronger presentation. In this way, the 7th grade practiced an essential element of our democracy, public debate on important issues.


These lessons in civic engagement encourage students to connect with the larger community and world around them.  They highlight that, living in the United States, we are fortunate to have the right to express our views and the responsibility to enact our values by advocating for issues we care about.  It is this very freedom that allows us to live our Jewish lives so fully, and having Schechter Manhattan, a school that integrates our Jewish heritage into all aspects of our living and learning, is a remarkable expression of religious freedom.  In these ways it is amazing to be a Jew living in New York City in 2019.


At the same time, the freedoms that allow for us to sustain our Jewish identities and live by our values also allow people in our society to express hatred for others, including us.  The rise in antisemitic rhetoric and hate crimes represents a significant, albeit ancient, challenge to sustaining our Jewish identities. We are forced to consider how we respond to this seemingly unending hatred towards Jews.  Do we shed our Jewishness so as to avoid the threat of those who hate us? Do we retreat inward, circle our wagons, and disconnect from the larger world around us? At Schechter Manhattan neither of these options will do. We aspire for our students to develop strong Jewish identities because we believe that the wisdom of our tradition and commitment of Jews to one another will support them in making the world an ever better place.


Being a part of a Jewish day school community affords our students opportunities to process complicated questions of Jewish identity with peers and caring adults, to think about how they want to live out their Jewish identities in an open and free, but not always safe, society.  Thankfully the attack in Colorado was thwarted before it could be perpetrated. But over the last year, deadly attacks on Jewish communities in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Halle left us shaken. When antisemitism raises its ugly head, I believe it is vitally important for our children to be embraced within the Jewish community, something a Jewish day school like ours is especially well positioned to offer them.  The safety of their caring community and the opportunity to process scary events with peers and adults who continue to sustain and value their Jewish identities makes it more likely that these young people will find meaningful ways to express their Jewishness as they navigate challenges, and figure out who they want to be and what impact they want to have in the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Benjamin Mann
Head of School