The Only Jewish Kid in Class

What Kids Want Parents to Know

Even though the percentage of Jewish students and teachers in my New York elementary and high schools was small, we were a significant enough presence that our schools were closed for the High Holidays. On winter Friday afternoons, Jewish students were released early so we could make it home before dark, in time for Shabbat. There were enough of us that we could walk together to our after school Talmud Torah classes.

Here on Florida’s Suncoast, children encounter a very different reality. They are frequently the only Jewish student in the class, and sometimes, the only one in a school. Often there isn’t even one Jewish teacher. This results in some difficult situations:

As a high school freshman, my oldest son was proud to be in band class; and then he learned that his first concert was on Kol Nidrei evening.

My younger son loved marching band, but most performances were at the Friday night football games, right during Shabbat services.

Brian, a 7th grade Bar Mitzvah student, told me that kids at school picked on him for being Jewish. He begged me not to tell his parents. He said he didn’t want them to call more attention to him by going to school and speaking to the teachers or administrators.

9th grade Emma confided that when they learned about the Holocaust in school, some kids told her that it was too bad that Hitler didn’t finish the job.

Sammy asked me if he should wear his Jewish star necklace inside his shirt, where no one would see it, or outside of his shirt, to show his Jewish pride.

Emma wondered if it was wrong of her to lie to her classmates about why she was absent on the High Holidays.

Joey was proud to be on the football team, but he didn’t know what to do when the coach called the players together for a pre-game Christian prayer.

The assistant principal at my son’s middle school called to tell me that my son had hit another student. It turned out that he’d finally had enough of being called a dirty Jew by a student whose mother was a teacher in the school.

Year after year, students have to contend with punitive actions by teachers when they miss class work or exams on the High Holidays.

What do parents have to know? I asked some former students who are now in college or beyond. Here are their thoughts:

  • In elementary school, children are open to parents coming in with stories and treats about Jewish holidays. One young man remembers his mom bringing in latkes, dreidels and Chanukah stories. His friends all asked to bring home a kippah!
  • Middle school has the really tough years. A former student observed that even though he experienced a fair amount of name calling focused on his Jewishness, he doesn’t think it was truly anti-Semitism. He said that middle schoolers are quick to discover anything that makes another student different, and to use that as a basis for bullying. Being Jewish was his difference.
  • Middle and high schoolers probably won’t want to confide in their parents that they are receiving negative attention for their Jewishness. One boy said that if he’d told his parents, he knew they’d have come into school to talk to the administration or teachers. That was the last thing he wanted. It would have made things even worse, he said, for other kids to know his parents had to intervene, and, he added, even well-meaning teachers aren’t discreet. Besides, teachers aren’t present where the real bullying occurs – in the halls, in the locker rooms, and in the rest rooms.
  • The best thing parents can do, they agreed, is to provide a happy and comfortable home life, so that children can ride out the difficult times.
  • Once in high school, they told me, the bullying tends to disappear, but other issues emerge. Sometimes teachers and club sponsors simply don’t know that their schedules are negatively impacting their Jewish students. When I called my son’s band director to ask why a mandatory performance was scheduled on Yom Kippur, she was sincerely apologetic. She had looked on a school calendar, and had scheduled a time when there were no conflicts. She promised to also consult a Jewish calendar in the future.
  • A few of my former Hebrew school students told me that it made a difference when I sent an email to all of the teachers in their high schools. I politely informed the teachers that a Jewish holiday was coming up and asked them to please be considerate about scheduling exams and make up time for assignments. Teachers were generally happy for the information, and being proactive yielded positive results.

I encourage parents and Hebrew school teachers to have conversations with their students about what it means to be Jewish in their public schools. Be aware that their experiences may change as they move from elementary, to middle, to high school. Be proactive, but, please, listen to the children.