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After stir over Kahane, school district taps local rabbi to make amends

A local rabbi says she’s encouraged by the dialogue started with Montclair High School administrators in the month since an email from the school honored ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, prompting quick apologies from school leaders.

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman met with the MHS administration for a professional development session June 9, discussing Jewish history and the experience of American Jews. Weitzman is associate rabbi and director of congregational learning at Montclair synagogue Bnai Keshet, and said she first received the email about Kahane from a concerned congregant.

Weitzman reached out to the high school administration offering her support for future learning. She said she saw the email as “profoundly ignorant” but not antisemitic.

“The administrators were extremely receptive and open to learning,” Weitzman told Montclair Local by email. “They expressed an apparently sincere desire to learn and grow in their ability to support a diverse student body.”

The May 10 MHS email, part of a daily announcement to families, honored Kahane to mark Jewish American Heritage month. It noted his founding of the Jewish Defense League — describing the group’s declared purpose as “to combat antisemitism in the public and private sectors of life in the United States.” It quoted Kahane saying the League was formed to “do the job that the Anti-Defamation League should do but doesn’t.”

Weitzman, in a June 10 email to congregants, said Kahane was chosen based on information in an American Jewish Historical Society timeline. She said it “does not provide sufficient clarity about who Kahane was.”

MHS Principal Jeffrey Freeman and Superintendent Jonathan Ponds didn’t respond to emails from Montclair Local over the last few weeks asking how Kahane was selected for recognition.

The JDL has been classified as a far-right terrorist group by the FBI since 2001 and is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC says on its website the group “orchestrated countless terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad, and has engaged in intense harassment of foreign diplomats, Muslims, Jewish scholars and community leaders, and officials.”

Kahane was also founder in Israel of the Kach political party, which has been declared a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union, and has been barred from the Israeli Knesset since 1988. Kahane previously served one term in the Knesset.

MHS’ assistant principal, Reginald Clark, followed up within hours of the May 10 email honoring Kahane with an apology, telling families “the information was in no way meant to harm or cause discontent among our community members.” Ponds sent an email May 11 apologizing for offending families, staff and the community, saying “the district will learn from this incident.”

But some community members weren’t satisfied with the response. At the May 17 Board of Education meeting, parent Amy Horowitz said the district’s decision to honor a “renowned racist/terrorist” was “not just ignorant, but appallingly ignorant.” Congregation Shomrei Emunah Rabbi David Greenstein and the amir of Masjid Wadud mosque, Imam Kevin Dawud Amin, both said last month they wanted to know how the choice was made in the first place.

Weitzman also noted in her letter to the congregation the Kahane email came just before “news of war in Israel and Gaza, news of increased antisemitic attacks around the country, and troubling social and social media interactions with friends at the high school around these issues.”

The letter did not address the May 19 selection of a Palestinian poet and vocal critic of Israel for AAPI Heritage month.

Weitzman told Montclair Local she began her lesson to the MHS administration with an overview of Jewish history in the United States, sharing an analysis of what antisemitism is, its evolution and how it appears in the country. She also spoke about the rise in antisemitic incidents in the country and provided specific examples. “I spent some time talking about demographic shifts of the world Jewish population over the past hundred years for the purpose of highlighting why even Jewish students who might not be politically engaged might feel deeply connected to Israel and potentially stigmatized by conversations around Israeli politics,” Weitzman said. “Jewish students’ relationship with Israel is diverse and nuanced, but it’s unusual for a Jewish student to have no relationship to Israel and Israelis.”

The session ran overtime and many questions went unanswered, Weitzman said in the email to congregants. Weitzman and Freeman continue to develop educational opportunities moving forward and are planning to hold professional development for a larger faculty group at MHS, she said. Weitzman told Montclair Local the session was “a really hopeful experience” for her.

“Our educational institutions should certainly lead the way in fostering learning, and they certainly seemed enthusiastic about that challenge,” she said.

On June 15, the Montclair Township Council sent an email to the community condemning antisemitism and the rise in hate crimes against Jews.

“No one should ever feel frightened or unsafe because of who they are and what faith they practice,” the email said. “We want everyone in our community — no matter what their background may be — to always feel respected and welcome in Montclair, a place that recognizes that our differences are what unites us and make our community great.”

This article is republished from the Montclair Local, which is partnering with the Forward on covering this issue.

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