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Leading, inspiring, and empowering

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By Basya Gartenstein
Director, Jewish Community Relations Committee, JCFR

Shalom Jewish Community of Richmond.

Basya Gartenstein

The Jewish Community Relations Committee has been formulating plans for the years ahead and focusing on five core areas: (1) Security (2) Inter-group: Generating dialogue, encounter, and action with our non-Jewish partners (3) Advocacy: Antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust Education (4) Educator Training and Professional Development (5) Israel and Global Jewry: Travel, Culture and Relationship Building.

This piece describing our response to an antisemitic incident is exemplary of our proactive approach to addressing these five areas (as they relate to a particular incident with wide implications).

We want to share a recent event that highlights our work in the area of advocacy and inter-group relationship building to address a threat to our Jewish community. Hence, I would like to take this opportunity to recap and outline the actions that are being taken as a result of the logo incident in Hanover County that made national news just a month ago.

Those of you reading this article join many beyond the Reflector readership, who were alarmed when a swastika-like symbol on a school T-shirt tore through social media like wildfire. It was a T-shirt that made its way through the Hanover County Public Schools with interlocking stick figures that strongly resembled a swastika.

People who encountered the image were alarmed and notified the Federation office. Superintendent Michael Gill swiftly responded to and condemned the incident. JCRC built a coalition of partners in crafting a response, and along with Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), the Virginia Holocaust Museum (VHM), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), we met this challenge – addressing the incident and its causes with a long term and short term plan.

JCFR convened our partners and met with Superintendent Gill and key school professionals directly following the event. The meeting was productive and included an open discussion regarding how the incident occurred, what steps have been taken since, and an acknowledgement of the impact this episode has had on the Jewish community and other marginalized groups targeted by white supremacy and hate in Hanover and beyond.

Dr. Gill and his team were receptive to our suggestions regarding ways to prevent future incidents, as well as our offer to provide resources and support to help educate and heal in the aftermath of this incident.

Some of the direct outcomes of the meeting include:

  • Exposure to Jewish perspective and needs: The inclusion of a Rabbi on the Hanover School Board Clergy outreach Breakfast. The first time a Rabbi will be included. We have connected the Superintendent with Rabbi Scott Nagel of Congregation Beth Ahabah, the current Rabbinic Association Chair who will attend the meeting.
  • Utilizing our networks to ensure accountability: JCFR, ADL, VHM and VCIC sent a communication to each organization’s stakeholders updating them about the meeting, thereby assisting us in holding accountable the Hanover School Administration.
  • Staff support and education: A commitment by the Superintendent to evaluate Professional Development opportunities around Holocaust Education for Hanover teachers. These will most likely be provided by the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
  • Jewish literacy: Regular ongoing meetings and dialogue on a quarterly basis.
  • Investigating the possibility of providing a suite of PJ Library and PJ Our Way books to the district to help Jewish students feel a part of the system and be seen in schools.
  • We will be reaching out to Federation-funded Jewish Student Union (JSU) to investigate the possibility of opening a JSU chapter in Hanover in the coming years.

This meeting was the first step in what will be an ongoing dialogue between our organizations and Hanover County Public Schools. While we wish the circumstances were different for our gathering, we look forward to future collaboration and partnership.

We thank our colleagues at Hanover County Public Schools for their commitment to partnering with the Jewish community and our partners in this critical work.

JCRC and JCFR drove the effort in “leading, inspiring, and empowering” by turning a disturbing situation into an opportunity to educate and drive change that better acquaint school districts with the identity of our community, ensuring that an event like this does not occur again.

We will meet in November to discuss progress and secure accountability regarding the above-mentioned goals.

This event and the manner in which we responded, showcases the proactive approach of the JCRC as we work to protect and educate our community. We are proactive advocates, but we also listen to our partners and allow strategy to emerge from thoughtful consideration.

A month into my work as JCRC Director, I am grateful to be part of an operation that not only meets the rising tides of antisemitism with agility, but is building sustainable bridges with inter-group partners to ensure that education and security is in place which can be modeled and replicated going forward.

As we enter the Jewish New Year, I pray that our labor bears fruit and that the Jewish families and minority groups affected by this incident experience comfort and safety, knowing that they are in the hands of our communal institutions, and we are protecting them.

To reach out to me, email: bgartenstein@jewishrichmond.org.

 

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