On Thursday night, I attended the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School system board meeting, unprepared for what I was about to hear.
When the board called for comments from the audience, a line grew, becoming over five people deep, each with a similar agenda. Due to snow, the CHCCS school district has considered hosting make-up days on Saturdays, and the speakers weren’t happy about it.
Hosting school on Saturdays, as they pointed out, is thoughtless at best and anti-Semetic at worst. Saturdays are part of Shabbat, the day of rest for Jewish people. Hosting school on Saturdays highlights the structural nature of religious exclusivity in the United States; this is not a Christian nation, but we sure act like it is.
As a Jewish person, this feels particularly personal. Like the father who admitted his daughters’ minority status as Jews in their school, I, too, was often the only Jewish person in my grade and one of four or five in my schools (of over 1500 people). I, too, have grown up within school systems that produce “holiday” plays, clinging to a guise of inclusivity when only one Hanukkah song is sung and maybe one Kwanzaa song, if we’re lucky. I, too, grew up in a place where “Jew jokes” were rampant and although, I’m sure, their speakers did not feel real animosity toward Jewish people, I felt outnumbered and uncomfortable but lacked the words to describe what exactly felt wrong about it. I grew up in Georgia, a state where the Jewish population numbered about 1.9 percent as of 2014. In North Carolina, my newest home, the Jewish population is tiny, seemingly negligible, at 0.3 percent. And that’s where the issue begins – this tiny population seems negligible, when really it represents over 30,000 people. And even if it only represented 1,000 or 100 or ten, does that give school boards or states leave to exclude their interests and needs?
Many of the parents that spoke shared that they had not allowed their students to go to school last year, when school was held on Saturday. These students were excluded on the basis of their religion, and, whether knowingly or not, it is a discriminatory act.
I imagine that there must not be any Jewish school board members because surely they would have protested a Saturday school recommendation. But: having a Jewish person on the school board should not be necessary in order to ensure these religious practices are heard and respected. We speak often of a lack of representation, and I am very lucky to be one of the many Jewish people who – due to other identities – receive significant representation and recognition. How many times have the needs of other minorities gone represented and its population without the resources or opportunities to address it? It should not come down to a question of resources in order to address a grievous lack of inclusion, but it has. In this case, it is crucial that the Jewish minority has stood up against exclusive policies in Chapel Hill-Carrboro. The widespread reach of the issue became evident in the board meeting when, upon prompting, over a dozen people stood who had come to speak out against Saturday school. As a Jewish person, I am grateful for the unity and the ability to speak out. I can’t help but wonder, though, how the situation would have been different if the people who spoke were not all white, educated, and able to access information surrounding the dates and times of board meetings. Even in discrimination, there was a privilege apparent not offered to many people whose needs lack representation in school.
It is lucky that the Jewish community is able to speak out against discriminatory polices – although speaking out ought not be a matter of privilege. But any failure to recognize and respect the needs of any minority, in this case with Jewish students, is unacceptable. In 2015, when the school board held schools on Saturdays, were people protesting? Perhaps, with the lack of protesters, it might be excused as thoughtless, although representation on the board should not be necessary in order to ensure inclusive practices.
If the school board deems Saturday an appropriate make-up day once more, it is no longer thoughtless. It is anti-Semetic.