When a call to action rings out — after the school bell, of course — some kids just know they have to help.
In the wake of JCC bomb threats and vandalism to Jewish cemeteries, youths have taken a stand for their Jewish community.
Whether their support takes form in silent, peaceful protests or community involvement, local children are not letting these incidents fade into the background.
In response to roughly 100 headstones knocked over at Mount Carmel Cemetery, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) sent some of its students to a cleanup day led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
“We foster an atmosphere of activism and commitment to social causes,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school. “When students came to us and asked, ‘How can we be helpful?’ we quickly mobilized our students and opened up an opportunity to them to both show solidarity and contribute in meaningful ways.”
Thirteen 11th-graders from JKHA’s Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School helped clean up the cemetery last week.
“I was very proud of their initiative,” Rubin continued. “They came back very reflective and more aware of the challenges that the Jewish community faces. The learning was out of the laboratory of school and into the experience of life.
“There is a delicate balance in teaching children about dealing with anti-Semitism, but at the same time reiterating the safety and security that they experience here in the United States.”
Richard Kirsch organized the group of students to go to the cemetery. He said the students heard what happened and wrote to him expressing their desire to help.
Yoni Kaynan, one of the 11th-graders who volunteered, said he originally found out about the vandalism through friends.
“When I heard about it I was a little bit shocked,” said Kaynan, who didn’t realize anti-Semitism was a significant problem in the U.S.
Restoring the cemetery was important to Kaynan in order to show respect for those buried there. The headstones were still considered a crime scene, but volunteers cleaned up trash in surrounding areas and removed vines to uncover other tombstones.
Seeing the high schoolers take part in a cause like this is what it’s all about for Kirsch, who teaches sociology and also works as a guidance counselor and athletic director.
“You love to see your students take the initiative, take all the learning that they do in the classroom setting and apply it to the outside world,” he said. “You like to see that they care about what’s going on in the world.”
Other schools sent students to the Stand Against Hate rally hosted by the Jewish Federation. Of the thousands in the crowd last week, for instance, 300 were students from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Darin Katz, director of the upper school at Barrack, arranged eight buses to bring the students from the Bryn Mawr campus to Independence Mall during the school day.
“This was an extremely important event for us as a school to attend,” the chemistry teacher said. “As a Jewish day school, it’s our obligation to teach our students to stand up to hate.”
Another local student also decided to speak up. Jemma Salisbury, a seventh-grader at Penn Alexander School, first learned about the wave of anti-Semitic acts after a bomb threat was made to Kaiserman JCC, where she went to preschool.
After the incident at Mount Carmel, the 13-year-old wanted to understand more, so she bought and read a front-page Daily News story about the cemetery vandalism.
“I was really angry,” she recalled. “It’s like that sick feeling you get in your stomach when something really bad happens and you don’t know what you can do about it.”
But Salisbury did something about it: She took all four of her school uniform shirts and drew Stars of David on them with the words, “I [heart] my people.”
She called her friends, too, one of whom made felt Jewish stars for students to wear.
“When I got to school, some people were already wearing the stars, and I was really surprised because even those who weren’t Jews — there aren’t a lot of Jews in my grade level in the middle school — even those people had started wearing the felt stars, and then they started making their own paper stars,” she said.
She noted, however, that some students were offended — the patches reminded them of the Holocaust.
“We’re on the verge of repeating events — not as gruesome as before, but just as bad,” she said. “It should remind you of the Holocaust because the whole point of history and writing things down is not to repeat those events. And that’s what my dad always tells me. So I decided to do this because I wanted to show support for my people because my people deserve respect like everyone else.”
She and her friends later decided to color the stars blue instead of yellow.
“We’re all just trying to help get through this, and I decided to do something about it to show my awareness, and you shouldn’t be offended by that. Even though it might make us uncomfortable, it’s the best thing to do in the situation,” she noted.
Many of her fellow students are still wearing the stars.
As for her uniform shirts now decorated in permanent marker — which she received permission from the school to alter — she’ll keep wearing them.
“I drew them on all of my shirts,” she said, “so I expect to be wearing them for a while.”
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