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Students rise above taunts at Washington museum
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Students rise above taunts at Washington museum

Kushner eighth-graders learn lessons from harassment incident

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

When anti-Semitism reared its head in Washington on May 31, 53 eighth-graders from the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston shrugged it off. The yeshiva also used the incident at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum — where the Kushner students were taunted by youngsters from another, unidentified school — as a learning opportunity with lessons about their identity as Americans and Jews and lingering racism in this country.

It was the last day of their annual trip to the nation’s capital May 29-31, which included a stop at Arlington National Cemetery (see page 8); an hour-long meeting with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; advocacy training with AIPAC; and visits to the Capitol, the White House, and the national monuments.

Inside the Air and Space museum, a group of eighth-graders from another school began jeering at the group from the Modern Orthodox day school. “They threw coins and taunted the students with racially charged anti-Semitic comments,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, principal of the Kushner middle school and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. “Some were explicit and some were benign. A number of them tossed coins from a balcony area in an attempt to intimidate our students.”

The Kushner students did not respond to the other youngsters but reported the incident to their group leaders, who approached the other school’s administrator. After a discussion, the students from the other school left the museum.

“Our students acted in an exemplary manner,” Rubin told NJJN. “They did not engage or participate in this conflict. They acted in a coherent, measured way, even with aplomb. We were very proud of our students’ behavior.”

Isabel Lara, a museum spokesperson, said security personnel were unaware of the anti-Semitic nature of the students’ behavior. According to a description of events given by an officer, “There was a group of rowdy kids who were running, playing on the escalator, and swearing within earshot of visitors,” said Lara. “The officer did not recall hearing any anti-Semitic remarks. As is policy, he gave the group a warning and told them if they continued to be rowdy he would talk with their chaperones and they would be asked to leave.

“When the kids continued to misbehave,” said Lara, “the officer talked to the chaperones, who concurred it was best for the kids to leave the building.” She said that museum officials would like to hear from the adults who accompanied the Kushner students. “We want to make sure that they felt the situation was appropriately handled, and we hope they come back for another visit soon,” she said.

Stephen Loeb, whose daughter Eliana was among the students on the trip, told NJJN as soon as the group returned home, “According to follow-up conversations I had today with Eliezer Rubin and with my daughter, students from another school first followed JKHA girls around and made rude comments and then started making ‘insulting and vulgar’ anti-Semitic comments to the JKHA boys.”

Loeb also said that he heard that the other students “threw coins at the JKHA students, taunting them to pick up thrown money.” Although he is not sure what exactly was said to the Kushner students, Loeb said, it was “clear that they were insinuating that Jews are cheap and like money.”

The next stop on the students’ itinerary happened to be the headquarters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where, according to Rubin, they discussed the implications of the incident. While their identity as Americans and as Jews is usually seamless, he said they were told, “sometimes, there are tensions under the surface, and there still is racial tension in the United States.” At AIPAC, it was also emphasized that “a few students do not speak for the entire population of the United States; at the same time, anti-Semitism is something we still contend with,” said Rubin.

Eliana, according to her father, “is kind of fatigued in talking about” the incident and is “completely minimizing the situation.” At this point, he said, she believes it ‘shouldn’t have been made such a big deal.’”

Rubin views the incident as a learning opportunity. “Students are not looking for every bunker to hide in. It bounced off the students very quickly,” he said. “But we will use the incident as a backdrop to help students on the one hand to be sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitism, but on the other hand not to let it create a context of fear and inhibition as American Jews.”

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