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But at this school, the educators are determined to not let fear become a cornerstone of their students’ Jewish identity. In fact, they are doing what they can to prevent that. Schools, and particularly Jewish schools, may feel like especially unsafe places right now. But Baran Munro said she believes they are no more vulnerable this week than last, in part based on her conversations with the authorities. “I don’t think the risk is higher today than it was last Friday,” she said on Monday, the first day back. But, she added, “I think the awareness of what could happen is higher.”
Fear has always been part of the vocabulary of Jewish life, but in the United States, it hasn’t necessarily been as tangible as it is in Israel or countries in Europe. (“Israeli parents, in particular, are very sensitive to the fact that we have open playgrounds and open fields,” Baran Munro said. “In Israel, the schools are fortresses.”) As Jews have assimilated into American society, many communities have focused on constructing a positive identity based on values and heritage, rather than a negative one based on a sense of persecution.
Particularly over the past several years, though, fear and anxiety have inflected the conversations in many Jewish communities, based on the perception that anti-Semitism and xenophobia are on the rise in America. While kids may have been learning about anti-Semitism as an artifact of history, many adults seem to have a growing, ambient sense of threat. If anything, in their eyes, what happened in Pittsburgh is an ugly confirmation of their fears.
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But Community Day School isn’t interested in “selling … kids and families on a vision of Judaism that [says], ‘We are victims of persecution, we are victims of the Holocaust, we are endangered, it’s the end of the Jewish people,’” said Baran Munro. Especially in liberal communities, where kids might live much of their lives outside of Jewish contexts, “Jewish families are not going to embrace a message of persecution and victimhood and segregation,” she said. “So we lead with pride and joy.”
While some kids expressed fear about coming back to school on Monday, ultimately, attendance was typical that day, the school said. Walking through the halls that day, it was difficult not to think about the vulnerability of the space. In one classroom, little boys wearing kippot, or Jewish head coverings, squirmed on the carpet next to soft-spoken little girls in uniform. The cheerful classrooms, labeled with colorful Hebrew letters and bursting with art and books, seemed like a haven from what had happened. They “know that they’re sad, and that something’s not right,” said Elke Cedarholm, a third-grade teacher. “So we’re just focusing on kindness, sending good thoughts out there, and on being the best little people that we can be.”