There are times in our lives when we cannot be silent. For me, this is one of those times. This is the season of lights. Jews are currently celebrating Hanukkah by lighting candles for eight nights to celebrate the victory of religious freedom over Greek tyranny. Soon, Christians will be celebrating Christmas with trees and homes adorned with lights.
It is no accident that these festivals come around the winter solstice when the nights are the longest. Darkness makes us uncomfortable. In some ancient cultures, people believed demons and evil spirits walked the earth at night, and darkness instilled fear. By contrast, light has the capacity to raise our spirits, makes us less afraid, and it also symbolizes the hope and goodness that can reside in each of us.
In our country, there is a different kind of darkness descending; it is a moral darkness, and I have concerns for our children. It is almost impossible to protect our children from the barrage of negative news coming our way every day. We shouldn’t be hiding it from middle school and high school students; rather, we need to be talking to them about it, for they may already be asking themselves questions about what they are hearing and seeing, and they deserve answers, and guidance.
How do we explain the behavior of politicians who fan prejudice, racism and divisiveness in our communities? How do we respond to the polarization and intolerance enveloping our college campuses, and our communities, making it almost impossible to have civil discourse or to respectfully disagree without demonizing another’s point of view?
How do we explain to our children the behavior of major politicians, and the powerful and influential people in the media, and in Hollywood, who have sexually harassed and disempowered women? How do we make sense for our children that while the people of the State of Alabama repudiated an accused pedophile and sexual harasser by narrowly electing his opponent, it was against a backdrop where many religious and political leaders supported the accused sexual abuser because filling a seat in their party was more important than dignity, values or morals?
These are more than moral lapses by our leaders in government, entertainment, and in the media. This is blatant disregard for appropriate behavior. Unfortunately, the accused are mostly males with an enormous sense of entitlement who devalue those who make up half the world – our mothers, sisters, and daughters. This must change.
Our children must be made to feel safe. If they share a concern or fear, reassuring them is important. They need to know that most people strive to do the right thing, and there is much good in this world for them to look forward to.
At school, in the upper grades, discussions of the news inevitably arise. When they do, teachers approach conversation the way they do the learning, teaching children to critically analyze situations, to respectfully disagree, and to understand that politics is filled with nuance, and contradiction.
It is not our right, or our job, as educators, to indoctrinate students with our own political beliefs. Students must feel safe to express their opinions without fear of criticism or feelings of ridicule from peers and teachers alike. We do not tolerate the demonizing of one side or the other that pervades the national conversation. Parents ought to do the same, to help children to form their own ideas based on facts, evidence and familial and religious values.
And because there are divergences in thought, there is a place for the expression of legitimate political differences. But there is never a place for ethical ambiguity! As such, I feel obligated to address the unacceptable behaviors of any leader in our country. This is not a partisan issue; it is a moral issue. I can imagine a student raising questions or making comments around things our President, politicians and entertainers have said or allegedly have done. When these issues arise in our classrooms and homes, a teachable moment can focus on separating the person from the office or his political beliefs. For instance, a President, or a member of Congress, can be criticized for immoral or unethical words or actions without denigrating the office they hold, its legitimacy, or even a political position they hold. We could all benefit from a reminder to differentiate the honor of the office from the person who inhabits it.
We need to call out the inappropriate behaviors of our leaders in any field, and make clear to our children that power, wealth or influence never gives anyone the right to behave in the ways that we have seen these past several months and years. We need to be direct, and we need to draw upon our Jewish and religious values as the basis for just, right and compassionate behavior.
Most importantly, parents and educators need to lead the change we seek for our children through our own actions and words. It is not enough to criticize our leaders. The school and home environments must be imbued with a culture that nurtures and expects appropriate behavior, respect and compassion for others. The dignity of all people must be paramount. We adults need to lead and live the lives we wish for our children!
During these days and weeks when Christians spread good cheer, peace and love to all, and we Jews celebrate and reaffirm religious freedom for all, it is a perfect time to reclaim the American values upon which this country was founded, based upon our Judeo-Christian values, and work to heal our communities and our nation.