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In Toxic Election, Jewish Schools Struggle to Find Teachable Moment

Since the beginning of the school year, the fifth-graders in Karen Hidalgo’s class at Austin Jewish Academy in Texas have been troubled by the mean-spiritedness of the presidential election.

“I feel like at Jewish days schools when we talk about morals and ethics, our current candidates haven’t been wonderful role models in those areas,” said Hidalgo.

That’s why Hidalgo changed tack. Instead of focusing on the real candidates, she and her students explored the notion of the ideal leader, and what morals that person would have.

Her experience reflects that of teachers at Jewish day schools across the country. This election hasn’t fit neatly into any lesson plan.

On Election Day, a few prominent Jewish day schools held mock votes, but were worried about making the outcomes of the votes public — even to parents.

Robin Wallach, director of advancement at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School near Los Angeles, said that the school was holding a mock presidential election but the school was uncertain whether they would announce the outcome — the general climate this year felt a little too volatile.

“We are letting our students know who won but we aren’t publishing it in our email to the parents today,” Wallach said. “We don’t want to anger students,” said Wallach. “We don’t want to anger families. We want it to feel neutral.”

Harry Katcher, director of communications at San Diego Jewish Academy, said the race was so “divisive and negative” that administrators decided to not involve this election’s politics in the school’s curriculum at all.

A mock ballot at the Heschel day school near Los Angeles. Image by Courtesy of Heschel School

While most Jews back Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, in some of the largely Modern Orthodox Jewish schools, the vote appears to be split.

Lucy Fried, a sophomore at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and a writer for the Boiling Point, a school newspaper, conducted a survey of the student body earlier this year and found that about half supported Donald Trump, and half supported Hillary Clinton.

Political debates had been particularly heated this year at school, Fried said and in her survey she found that students’ preferences were taken from their parents: “There are a lot of student who are avidly against Trump and a lot who are avidly for Trump.”

Students held a mock election on Tuesday morning at SAR in Riverdale, in which Clinton won by just over 50 percent, according to Rivka Schwartz, associate principle.

The school will hold a party tonight to view the election results as they roll in. Schwartz said that this contentious election has taken its toll on the student body, just as it has across the country.

“Some kids are feeling swamped by the unpleasantness of this election and tuning out,” said Schwartz. “Helping them to sort this out, wading through all of this, is what we’re trying to do.”

Email Sam Kestenbaum at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum

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