While many students were at home on MLK Day, playing games, going to movies or hanging at malls, our children were immersed in learning about and understanding the significance of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s calls for equality and social justice resonate in the souls of the Jewish people. Marching side by side with Martin Luther King were many great Jewish leaders. It is fitting that our students dedicated the day to learning about Dr. King, about the unique relationship between the black and Jewish communities, and our shared values of equality and social justice.
This year, with our country deeply divided, and racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism rearing their ugly heads in ways not seen in years, Dr. King’s example is more timely than ever. Sadly, our children are exposed to significant amounts of negative news, divisiveness and anger, intolerance, and prejudice.
On MLK Day, our students were reminded that there is a better way, and that people can come together to make a profound difference in the lives of others. Our Kindergartners learned what peace means. Fifth and sixth graders learned spiritual and freedom songs, and the impact they had on those who sang and listened to them. An Anti-Defamation League representative spoke to our eighth graders. Every grade engaged in meaningful activities related to the themes of the day. And in the afternoon, we came together for an assembly that included a powerful video that counters stereotypes, a choral reading of the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” and a reminder of the special relationship between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who prayed with his feet as he marched side by side with civil rights leaders.
The song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” appears in the Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein Tony Award-winning musical, South Pacific. It opened in 1949, and drew controversy for covering uncomfortable territory: Its romantic tension was based on interracial romance, a strong taboo at the time. The song’s lyrics made many people uneasy:
“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein were repeatedly asked to drop the song from the show. The Georgia state legislature even drafted a bill banning the song during the national tour’s stop in Atlanta in 1954. The bill was defeated. In Boston, a Navy lieutenant commander demanded that the number be cut because it was shoving ideology down the audience’s throats. Hammerstein wrote back, “Please forgive me for not agreeing with you. I am most anxious to make the point not only that prejudice exists and is a problem, but that its birth lies in teaching and not in the fallacious belief that there are biological, physiological, and mental differences between the races…”
The message to our Hillel students on Monday was that while prejudice, hatred and fear are still taught in our society – we are better than this. We can fight back by teaching tolerance, mutual respect and love, and living those values through our actions and words. Our Jewish values and tradition demand that we choose justice, righteousness and acceptance! And as our children showed, they are assimilating these values deeply.
The assembly ended with several Hillel students in Kindergarten through eighth grade declaring to their peers what they stand for! This is what some of our students said:
“I stand for peace.”
“I stand for fairness.”
“I stand for friendship.”
“I stand for being a good friend.”
“I stand for good sportsmanship and playing fair.”
“I stand for programs that uplift a group of people who need support because they are being treated unfairly. I stand for treating everyone equally.”
“I stand for equal rights for people of different races and religions.”
“I stand for equality for all.”
And so it went on. And may it continue to go on!