What will rise from the flames of war?

Art by Carol Coogan

At the October school board meeting in Guilderland, a Jewish mother took the board and superintendent to task.

As Lauren Schreiber-Romeo stood at the microphone and spoke from her heart, we felt her pain.

She said she was speaking not just for herself and her children “but on behalf of our entire Jewish community.” She asserted that the district had failed to “respond correctly” to Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

She referenced the message that Superintendent Marie Wiles had sent to Guilderland families soon after the attack. “As you may be aware, terrorist attacks and violent conflict erupted in the Middle East this weekend,” the message began. “While this is occurring on the other side of the world, we understand the situation may have a direct impact on members of the Guilderland Central School District community.”

“You down-played its significance,” Schreiber-Romeo told the board, “by saying, even though it didn’t happen here — across the world was your exact term — I want to explain to you, this affected every Jewish person and was extremely traumatic to us all and continues to be. When one Jew is affected, we all are ….

“This is not a time for moral equivocation or wishy-washy political stands …. This is a time for empathy and sympathy for your Jewish students. This is a time to make your Jewish students feel safe and heard in your buildings, with your staff, with their peers, with the administration.”

Schreiber-Romeo implored the board to look at the images of the Hamas torture of Jews “so it resonates with you, how important this is. God forbid this happens here. Don’t be naive that it won’t. I expect better of you all … You claim to be a school against hate, a school who has made abundantly clear you are activists for BLM, LGBTQ — you need to be just as strong for your Jewish students.”

She went on to ask, “Are your students educated on the matter or are they now pushing propaganda without you educating them?”

Schreiber-Romeo concluded, “I want you to take a long, hard look at me. I’m a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter — a whole family wiped out by monsters just like Hamas. I will fight in my grandparents’ names for this never, ever to happen again. If you remain silent, you are complicit in these matters.”

The school board was silent because its longstanding policy is not to respond in the moment to public comments.

So we called the superintendent, Marie Wiles, for a response — and were moved by what we heard.

“I know we have families in our school who are Jewish and who feel intensely the trauma of what happened … and don’t feel safe maybe here or anywhere at this point,” said Wiles. “We also have many, many families who have strong ties and family members who live in Gaza. We have children who have lost multiple members of their families that we know about.”

The point of the original message sent to families whose children would be returning to school after a long weekend was “to say we are paying attention to what’s going on in the world and we know this is really dreadful,” said Wiles.

The Monday after the Hamas attack was a school holiday, Indigenous Peoples Day. “We reached out to all of our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, all of our professional staff,” said Wiles so that, come Tuesday, when students returned to class, they would be able to offer support as needed.

“It wasn’t to make a moral statement,” said Wiles of her message. “The purpose was to communicate to our families that we understand something horrible has happened and we are going to feel it here at home, and we’re ready to help.”

On Oct. 12, Wiles sent out another message, listing a half-dozen online resources parents could consult, including two from the Anti-Defamation League. 

She wrote, “We recognize the tragic events surrounding this conflict have brought about feelings of fear and uncertainty that are extremely difficult for adults to process; however they are especially so for children, no matter their age.”

We believe there is an important distinction to be made between Hamas, a terrorist group, and the Palestinian people. 

“Terrorism is just pure evil,” said Wiles.

Asked how Guilderland teachers are handling the terrorist attack on Israel and the war that has followed, Wiles said, “There’s no uniform way to say this is the district approach to this because there’s so much variation in the willingness and capacity to engage.”

The Middle East is part of the 10th-grade curriculum in New York state and Guilderland teachers have conferenced on “trying to address this,” Wiles said. Resources are being provided to teachers who feel “comfortable facilitating what we call civil conversation,” said Wiles.

The conversations, she said, are held in a way that “honors the speaker, honors multiple perspectives, helps students listen to understand rather than listen just to respond.”

Asked about Schreiber-Romeo’s assertion that the district had focused on advocating for Black or LGBTQ students, Wiles said, “I hear sometimes that we’re forgetting our white children and this is absolutely not true … Every single one of the children who come through our doors matters to us,” she said, citing work at the board level, with teaching, with curriculum cabinets, with building cabinets, and with school clubs.

Last year, Wiles said, the board’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee decided to focus on anti-semitism because of “the growing anti-semitism that we’re seeing in the world, in the community, and maybe within our school walls.”

The committee, Wiles said, “is talking about empathy and really trying to understand where people are coming from so that we can begin to build the bridge between and among people.”

She stressed, though, “We don’t want to build a bridge with terrorists.”

Bridge-building strikes us as essential not just for harmony in Guilderland but for the future of the world. One of the many sad stories coming out of the Hamas-Israel war is of two idealistic young journalists: Yuval Abraham, a Jew from Israel, and Ahmed Alnaouq, a Palestinian from Gaza.

Together, they started a Facebook page in 2019 called “Across the Wall” depicting the lives of ordinary Palestinains, the stories translated into Hebrew for Israelis to read. On Oct. 22, while Alnaouq was studying in London, a missile hit the building where his family lived, killing all of them — his father, two brothers, three sisters, and 14 nieces and nephews all younger than 13.

Fergal Keane reported from Jerusalem for BBC News that Abraham told Alnaouq how sorry he was and Alnaouq said ​​he was able to differentiate between Abraham and the Israeli pilot who dropped the bomb that killed his family.

Abraham, who has lost friends because of his advocacy for Palestinian rights and now feels the threat of violence, told Keane he would not stop his work if Alnaouq is willling to continue.

“I believe that we failed in Across the Wall … our aim was to prevent these wars from happening, but we have failed,” says Alnaouq but he ultimately tells Keane he will keep writing.

“Ahmed cannot be consoled with vague platitudes about peace and understanding,” writes Keane. “But the work he does with Yuval provides a glimpse of light in a time filled with pain. ‘I want us to have a decent human life,’ he says. ‘We deserve it.’”

Reading about the work of a Jew and a Palestinian together trying to stop hatred centuries in the making gave us a sliver of hope.

It echoes a lesson Guilderland’s new DEI director, Derek Westbrook, taught to the over 600 teachers who assembled in the high school auditorium. He spoke of how each human being exists on three levels.

The first is we are all part of the human race, sharing that in common. The second is we each come from a culture, whether its geographic, racial, ethnic, or religious. And the third is that each one of us is an individual unlike any other. 

Wiles said of Guilderland staff, “Our work is recognizing that everybody is all three of those things.” She went on, “We take very seriously the obligation and the responsibility that we have to make sure that each child feels like they belong, that they’re part of our school community, and that we’re providing for them the opportunities to learn and grow and develop and change and find joy in being in our classrooms and on our campus.”

She conceded, “That is an extraordinarily tall order … and will always be a work in progress.”

It is noble work, and there are lessons all of us can learn from it. We can engage in civil conversations, seeking to understand differing views. We must not tolerate slurs or expressions of hatred. We must call out anti-semitism when we see it. 

At the same time, we must build bridges, listening with empathy and seeking to understand how another person feels.

We must acknowledge each person as an individual while also seeking to understand that person’s background. But, above all, we must see our common humanity.

If the two young journalists — a Jew and a Palestinian — can carry on with this important work in the midst of a war, we can certainly do it here.

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