In 2019, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS/Kushner) Head of School and Klatt Family Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Eliezer Rubin sought to expand the school’s outreach programs by connecting with other high schools in the area. Because Kushner is accredited by the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools (NJAIS), Rabbi Rubin reached out to the head of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, another NJAIS-accredited school, located in Newark.
“I was delighted when he responded to my email,” Rabbi Rubin explained, for it marked the beginning of a warm relationship between the two schools.
Soon thereafter, Rabbi Rubin was invited to address the St. Benedict’s student body, where he shared words of Pirkei Avot. Following a second invitation to one of St. Benedict’s comparative religion classes, Rabbi Rubin invited its head of school, Father Edwin Leahy, to address the RKYHS students. Fr. Leahy’s speech, which described the challenge of recognizing God in the mundane, struck a certain chord with the Kushner students, who were engrossed by the headmaster’s unique take on something that seemed so familiar.
The relationship between RKYHS and St. Benedict’s Prep School was solidified when a collaborative seminar was initiated and sponsored by Ariel Nelson, a Kushner parent and board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. The inspiration for the seminar was Nelson’s mother, Eva Nelson, z”l, a Holocaust survivor, public school teacher and head of the special education department at Verona High School. As she got older, she began to speak to her family and students about her experiences in the Holocaust, even accepting an interview for Kushner’s “Names, Not Numbers”© program. Nelson passed away in June, and during the shiva, Ariel found a scrapbook filled with letters from Eva’s students and alumni.
Many praised her for helping them succeed in school, “but then we found letters that showed the deeper and more profound impact she had,” Nelson said. “One read, ‘Mrs. Nelson, without you, I would never have known about the Holocaust.’”
It was these letters and the resurfacing protests against racism across the country that inspired him to continue his mother’s legacy by pressing for interfaith collaboration among schools. Nelson reached out to Kushner with an idea: “What if my family sponsored a program that fostered dialogue around common experiences between Jewish kids at Kushner and people of color at a school in Newark?”
Nelson and Rabbi Rubin brainstormed ideas about a possible curriculum, weaving together lessons from pre-Holocaust Germany to those of modern anti-Semitism and racism. After Nelson raised funds from the local community, RKYHS teachers like Deborah Orens honed the curriculum until the seminar was ready for students in mid-September.
The seminar is being co-taught by Orens, a former lawyer and current teacher at RKYHS, and Stephen Adubato, a teacher at St. Benedict’s specializing in philosophy and religion. The seminar is voluntary. Every other week, the participating juniors and seniors at each school discusses the assigned literature surrounding racism and anti-Semitism separately, eventually assembling on a single Zoom the following week for further discussion. Classes are organized in the style of a Socratic seminar, allowing students to respectfully share their opinions in an open and welcoming environment.
Orens noted, “It’s impressive that the students are already trusting each other enough to have honest discussions about their personal experiences, and finding connections with students outside their bubbles.”
For many students in St. Benedict’s, this is their first interaction with Jewish people, so both teachers are constantly finding innovative ways of introducing connections. Similarly, most Kushner students have never had genuine conversations with Black students in an academic setting. In the pursuit of open dialogue between the two schools, Adubato finds it “helpful to begin from our common origin and shared desire to pursue the mystery of God through correcting injustices and serving our neighbor.”
“Through our reading selections and discussions,” Orens explained, “these students will begin to see the commonality of their experiences, and by doing so, see each other as individuals rather than ‘the other.’”
Adubato described his hope to “bring to attention the way religion has played a role in racial/ethnic identity, as well as how it has fueled initiatives for justice.” He often points out the similarities between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Heschel, “two men of faith who worked together to confront the injustices inflicted upon their respective communities.”
The seminar explores texts such as Elie Weisel’s “The Perils of Indifference” and Hannah Arendt’s deeply philosophical “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Teachers will present different historical contexts of hate, from Kristallnacht and the 1921 Tulsa riots to the Nazi appropriation of Jim Crow laws into the Nuremberg Laws.
Rubin contends that one should caution against treating racism and anti-Semitism as one and the same; one should distinctly remember the Holocaust as “a state-sponsored genocide using all levels of government and cultural touch points to annihilate an entire people.” Though both stem from a similar source of hate, necessary distinctions must be made in the pursuit of combatting each with full force.
“And though hatred against Jews has not taken shape the same way hatred against blacks has in America,” Adubato acknowledged, “I remind my students to try to listen and understand the experiences that Jews have faced, as well as the rich religious and cultural traditions that undergird Jewish communities.”
To immerse the students in the history of these well-established cultures, teachers hope to plan a joint visit to Washington, DC, to explore the Holocaust Museum and the Museum for African American History and Culture. Once the students are grounded in a solid understanding of the past, both teachers hope to equip them with necessary skills to fight society’s modern forms of hate. Students will prepare a “Morality Manifesto,” crystallizing their moral beliefs, eventually putting them into practice by discussing controversial topics like crime and punishment, drug policies, income inequality and media bias.
“There are 27 very busy students dedicating themselves to explore complex texts and consider controversial issues in the evening, after being in school all day,” Orens said. Their dedication to participate—to listen without holding preconceived notions, to speak from a source of pride—is proof that everyone can benefit from true discourse.
“I am proud of our students who firmly and confidently remain committed to their beliefs and values,” Rubin said, “which gives them the fortitude and gumption to learn about and be sensitive to ‘the other.’”
This article first appeared in the Jewish Link of New Jersey and was reprinted here with permission.