South Orange Rabbis Respond to Bias Incidents at SO Middle School

by The Village Green
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The following message was sent to the congregations of three synagogues in South Orange, NJ —Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, Congregation Beth El and Oheb Shalom Congregation — following several bias incidents that were reported recently at South Orange Middle School. The rabbis have given Village Green permission to post the message here.

rabbis Jesse Mark Daniel

Counterclockwise from top left: Rabbi Mark Cooper, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Dear Friends,

We are blessed to live in a diverse community. It is this diversity that makes South Orange-Maplewood an attractive place to live, worship and raise families.

At the same time, diversity can, at times, be challenging. That has been the case over the last days. As many of you know, and as has been reported in a number of local media outlets, there have been a number of bias issues that have taken place at South Orange Middle School in recent weeks. These included hate images posted to social media, student-to-student bias comments in the halls, and lunchroom conversation that has no place in our community.

This is, of course, unacceptable and requires response. Such response must, however, be serious in its intent, measured in its approach, and focus on the present challenges AND the future healing that will ensure our towns remain the open, embracing communities that drew us here in the first place. It is in this context that we are taking the unprecedented step of writing to each of our congregations but doing so in a single document.

Upon hearing of this late last week, the three of us immediately met to discuss how we, as the rabbis of the three South Orange synagogues, might best respond.

As a result of that meeting, late yesterday afternoon we met with members of the administration of the school district, including Dr. John J. Ramos, Sr., Superintendent of Schools, Kevin Walson, Assistant Superintendent of Administration, Lynn A. Irby, Principal of SOMS, as well as assistant principals, district social workers, and school guidance counselors. Present at the meeting as well were representatives from the New Jersey office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the local Community Coalition on Race. We appreciate Principal Irby’s swift response to organizing this meeting.

It was a good meeting and the first of what we expect will be a series of on-going meetings and learning opportunities. We left the meeting confident of a number of things.

First, it is clear there are serious issues that need to be addressed, but the well-being of our community remains strong.

Second, the school has and will continue to address the specific events and those involved in them.

Equally important however is the fact that the school administration understands the need to address issues of bias on all levels in a positive, ongoing manner and use this as a learning opportunity for the community-at-large. We emerged confident that they will do just that. We also appreciated the administration’s offer to partner with us to aid in this effort.

We commend those in the community and in our schools who saw bias and took a stand against it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “we are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” We appreciate the administration’s commitment to cultivating a community of “upstanders,” to initiating anti-bias training for staff, to building peer leadership training opportunities for our children, and to planning parent workshops and conversations on bias. We look forward to working together in teaching our children and ensuring that our community continues to be a blessing.

In friendship,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen, DMin
Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky
Congregation Beth El

Rabbi Mark Cooper
Oheb Shalom Congregation

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