Bloom: Bluffton Middle School incident shows religion, community can work well together

www.bethyam.orgMay 26, 2012 

The wall between religion and state has been a battleground in our country since before we became an independent nation. Americans have been fighting for and against the influence of religion in our public life. Public schools are the most popular battleground, where each side claims their values are helping America's children to be more God-fearing versus being more respectful of religious diversity. Why does it have to be that these two values are always presented as though they are locked in an eternal struggle with each other?

Yet there are times, believe it or not, when the faith community and the public schools work together for the greater, common good. Locally, we have a case where representatives of both the religious community and the public school system partnered to prove that there is common ground when both institutions support each other for the sake of the students. It is about time we start highlighting the positives -- when both sides can see that there are teachable moments that benefit all faiths and the students at the same time.

Recently, a teacher at Bluffton Middle School was accused of manhandling a student in her class and making anti-Semitic comments about Nazis and Jews. The reverberations of this incident spread worldwide and carried with it a particularly ominous message of anti-Semitism and a disdain for the Holocaust itself. It also went against the value of preserving a safe environment for students in the schools.

The question was: What is the response to this very sad and tragic episode?

Thanks to the leadership of Beaufort County Superintendant Valerie Truesdale and Principal Dereck Rhoads, a team of clergy from Judaism and the branches of Christianity joined together with the administration and planned a response. Rabbis, priests and ministers sat down with school administrators and guidance counselors to discuss the Holocaust, the welfare of students and the faculty, and to brainstorm a plan for a program that would teach the students about the Holocaust and about having respect for each other.

For four periods of 30 minutes each, this team of clergy told stories to 950 students about Christians and Jews who had been martyred at the hands of the Nazis. They heard the story of a Catholic priest who opposed the Nazis and was killed in a concentration camp. Students read from the diary of Ann Frank and about a 15-year-old who died at Auschwitz but left behind his thoughts on life in the camp.

The ministers, priests and rabbis talked about the importance of speaking out when students see bullying, and the importance of showing tolerance and mutual respect for each other. The students were respectful and engaged.

This was a teachable moment when religion, the public school and the community rose to the occasion. Everyone understood that there was a moral high ground and together these leaders of the community seized it. This team of clergy and school officials reaffirmed the common values of mutual respect and acceptance that go to the heart of what being an American is all about. They reinforced the right that all students have to a safe environment in the public schools. This group restored truth and dignity to the study of the Holocaust.

This was a shinning moment for South Carolina and Beaufort County. I hope God, who created humankind, is smiling over us saying, "I'd like to see more of that kind of cooperation in the future. Keep it up."

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.

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