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Antisemitism: What Can We Do?

Antisemitism: What Can We Do?

By David Fair
Cantor-Educator of the United Jewish School in Grand Rapids, MI

I am sad and I am angry. Antisemitism still exists and it’s actually getting worse. I am angry that our secular schools aren’t doing more to fight it. I am sad that our children still have to experience it. I feel despair knowing that we’re not going to be able to banish it during our lifetime. We have to sit with this awful plague in our world – a plague that is as old as the ancient Pharaohs.

As the director of a religious school, I feel parental. Just as a parent cannot prevent their child from experiencing disappointment and heartbreak, I cannot prevent my students from experiencing antisemitism. 

However, I don’t believe it’s as hopeless as it can sometimes feel. And I definitely don’t believe that there’s nothing we can do. 


As a spiritual leader, the best thing I can do for you is empower others to take action. You are not helpless and you are not powerless. There is so much that you can do. You’re angry? Use that righteous anger!

  • When’s the next town hall public forum in your city? Attend and share your experiences. Do you know who your county commissioner is? How about your area’s state representative? Who is your school district’s superintendent? Find out how you can communicate with them and let them know what you need and how you feel!
  • Partner with your kid’s teacher in their secular school. Ask them if you can come into the classroom and share some personal experiences that would be appropriate for that age-group to hear. My mom did this every year! My brothers and I were the only Jewish family in our elementary and middle schools, so she would come in twice a year: once shortly before Chanukah to talk about our family’s Chanukah traditions and once before Yom Hashoah and talk how antisemitism had personally touched her life. It was a wonderful partnership she had with our schools! Teachers looked forward to working with her.
  • You have the right and the duty to speak with people in your life (friends, family, coworkers, doctors, professors) from other faith traditions and ask them if they are doing anything to fight antisemitism. It’s okay if they feel uncomfortable with this conversation. In an article recently published on Npr.org entitled, “How to address antisemitic rhetoric when you encounter it,” Dov Waxman states, “We need to kind of point [antisemitic comments] out, without shaming that person, without responding to them as if they’re an anti-Semite. Saying, ‘Well, you know, you may not mean it. You may not be aware of this, but what you said is actually antisemitic,’ and explaining why it is.”


As a professional educator of Jewish children, I want you to know that you have permission to have these difficult conversations with your children. It is never too early to have a conversation about prejudice. (They see it much earlier than we think they do.) When I want to have a conversation with Kindergarten children about antisemitism, racism, and sexism, I read them any of the myriad of books designed for this age group about these difficult topics. After we read the story,  we have conversations where I use language like this:

  • “Some people are not nice to people who don’t look like them. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”
  • “Some boys (or girls) are not nice to girls (or boys). Some kids are not nice to kids who are non-binary. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”
  • “Some people are not nice to Jewish people. Is that okay? What can we say when we see someone is not being nice?”

Nothing about those conversations is confusing or scarring. It’s a gentle way to prepare their brains for further conversations. (These are similar conversations we might have about bullying.) These conversations needn’t be long. A short 5-minute conversation can be deeply impactful. This plants a seed in their minds so that when we talk about it again in 1st grade, they’re familiar with this conversation and we can build on that in an age-appropriate way. Even speaking about it for one day a year can be incredibly powerful.


At the United Jewish School, we start talking about the act of antisemitism as early as possible. We focus on the history of antisemitism starting in the 7th grade. We teach as much as we can, but teaching all of Jewish history in a once-a-week Jewish religious school is a challenge. In the 29 Sundays that our religious school meets this year, we try to fit in: Torah study, holiday study, customs, traditions, prayers, values, Israel education, and much more, so we have to be thoughtful and intentional about how much time we can dedicate to antisemitism and the Holocaust. All of these subjects are important. We want to convey to our students the seriousness of antisemitism and prepare them for how it will touch their lives, but we don’t want to overshadow the fact that Judaism is full of so much joy and light!


Another excellent way to battle antisemitism is to have Jewish pride and a strong Jewish community. The value of coming to religious school and making gingerbread Sukkot and singing “Bim Bam” should not be undervalued. 

Being active in the Jewish community is in itself a defiant act against antisemitism. 

When you sign your kid up for your Synagogue’s teen trip to do whitewater rafting, sledding, or challah baking, that is an intentional act combating antisemitism. Participating in synagogue programming, community service projects, and building friendships are all ways to build that support system within the Jewish community. 

I had a really thorough Jewish education, but my childhood religious school was only a small part of that. I was fortunate enough to take courses in modern Jewish history when I was a university student. I also had a Mom who loved reading Jewish literature and I got to witness that. As a parent, you can be an equal partner in your child’s antisemitism education. I encourage parents to borrow books from the library or watch documentaries on Jewish history. You might be surprised at how interested your children become in Jewish history when they see how passionate you are in learning about this topic.


How do we teach our children to “respond” to antisemitism? First things first, they have to be able to identify it. At the United Jewish School, we teach our children exactly what it has looked like throughout history, so our students know exactly what it looks and sounds like. When antisemitism rears its nasty head, we don’t want our children to be confused and shocked. We want children to say to themselves, “Oh, I recognize this. This is really familiar. We learned about this. This is antisemitism.” If they are clear about what it is that they’re experiencing, they can take next steps.

After being able to identify it, the next step is seeking accountability. This step is different for younger vs. older children. For young children, I would never advise them to respond in the moment to antisemitism. It’s not the job of a child to defend themself from an antisemitic attack. (This is the same advice I would give to any child who is dealing with bullying.) As an educator, my instructions are always to go tell an adult. It’s serious and it’s worth telling a grown-up about right away. I recently heard a parent say, “I didn’t want to tell the principal because I didn’t want to get that child in trouble. Then they’ll blame us–the Jews!” If someone commits an antisemitic act and you report them, you are not getting them in trouble; they got themselves in trouble. And furthermore, if you don’t hold them accountable, they will continue to spew their antisemitism to others. As Waxman notes in the previously referenced article when speaking about the artist formerly known as Kanye West, “Allowing his comments to pass is dangerous because it can legitimize or normalize those kinds of comments.” 


Older children are capable of having more powerful conversations with each other. Whereas a 7-year-old who draws a swastika might be emulating a parent and doesn’t realize the true implications of that act, a teenager is different. A teenager absolutely needs to be engaged with, and I believe that a peer can be that engagement.

I will often do a role-playing activity with teenagers to give them verbal tools. We rehearse using phrases such as:

  • “What you just said makes me feel very uncomfortable.”
  • “That is hateful language and it’s not okay for you to say that.”
  • “Please stop using that language.”
  • “It hurts me when you say that.”
  • “What was your intent when you said that?”

 I advise teens to keep their voices in low and quiet tones and ask that person deep, personal questions, and use “I” statements.  

But I want to reiterate, it is also a perfectly responsible and courageous action to not engage with an antisemite and instead, go straight to an adult. Someone who is spewing hate is capable of violence and an altercation won’t accomplish anything.

Lastly, if you feel like there’s more that your community can be doing to fight antisemitism and your leaders aren’t taking action, become a leader yourself. Take matters into your own hands. Tell your synagogue’s or your JCC’s Executive Director that you want to form a task force tackling antisemitism. Create a graphic that advertises this group and tell the president to put in the monthly bulletin, weekly email, and on social media. Reserve the library or a conference room for a weekly one-hour meeting. Ask a board member to be in attendance. Contact the ADL to advise and support the group. Invite guest speakers and open these meetings to the entire community. I can tell you, as a synagogue leader myself, if a congregant said that to me, I’d say, “Amazing! Do it! How can I support this? I’ll tell the choir and our Torah study group.”

I’ve studied enough history to know that in the face of impossible obstacles, the Jewish people have been incredibly resilient. We have gone through countless periods of government-sanctioned prejudice, discrimination, genocide, and persecution, and somehow, we have not only survived, we have thrived! Like the Maccabees, we know how to fight. Like Josephus, we know our history. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no one can tell us that our voices are not powerful. We know who we are. We are leaders. Now, let’s go be a light unto the nations!


New at United Jewish School

Dear Families of the United Jewish School,

After a joyous month of gratitude, we are excited to welcome in this month of Kislev, as we celebrate Chanukah! We hope that you will light the Chanukah candles with your children and recite the blessings:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah. 

(Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asah nisim laavoteinu v’imoteinu bayamim hahaeim baz’man hazeh. 

(Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wonderous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

(Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.)

This month, our entire school is focusing on “Gevurah,” which means “Using one’s inner and outer strength.”  We focus on concepts such as Anne Frank’s strength, standing up for others, strength as a spiritual guide, Joshua as a leader, Israeli Olympians, bullying, Jewish partisans and Holocaust survivors, and the story of David & Goliath. There is much to learn and we looking forward to working with your children as we explore this important Jewish value.

Last month, we welcomed to Grand Rapids Jewish musician and educator, Bodi! We enjoyed a fabulous morning program called “A Jewish Journey Through Contemporary Music and Pop Culture.” The kids really enjoyed themselves and gained a truly memorable and educational experience!

This month, we are excited to welcome Jewish songleader, composer, and prayer leader Noah Aronson. Noah has been creating and inspiring international audiences with his heartfelt and soulful music for the last 20 years. Known internationally for his well-known prayer settings of “Am I Awake/Bar’chu,” “Let There Be Love,” “We Return,” and “Zamru Ladonai.” Noah will be offer an entire weekend to the Temple Emanuel Community, but on Sunday, he will be working with the entire school on Sunday, November 11th, to prepare them for a concert at 11:00am where the kids will sing for us all! The entire community is welcome to come!

We have been amazed at how many parents donated to The Kippah Project. We raised an incredible $709! With this money, we were able to go to the classrooms and ask kids exactly what theme of kippah they are looking for. We have been delighted to start seeing more and more kids wearing them while they learn! We’ve been able to use the surplus to go toward other educational initiatives, such as bringing in Jewish guest artists!

We have another opportunity for you to give. UJS would like to bring in a group called “The Afro-Semitic Experience” on Martin Luther King, Jr weekend.

These six musicians travel around the country offering incredible programming to communities just like ours! Our Jewish community believes in opening our eyes and hearts to the incredibly unique and exciting possibilities that happen when people from different racial and musical backgrounds come together and create, so this program is particularly appropriate for ours. As their website describes: “Our friendship ignites our passion and purpose: we merge our musical roots, Jewish and Afro-diasporic melodies and grooves, combining the core concepts of àse and shalom – power, action, unity, and peace.” As legendary jazz critic, Nat Hentoff wrote “….never before have I heard this lyrically powerful a fusion of Jewish and jazz souls on fire…” The Afro-Semitic Experience’s music is described by critic Carlos Ramos as “a whoopin’, hollerin’, testifyin’ celebration of multicultural soul music. Imagine Charles Mingus sitting in with a Klezmer band, playing Gospel music set to the polyrhythmic pace of congas and bongos.” I would be so excited to expose our students to this awesome music and way of envisioning togetherness. This feels like it could truly be an experience our children would never forget. https://afrosemiticexperience.net/home

But we need your help! We are raising money to pay for them to come to Grand Rapids. They have been so generous as to only ask for $2000. Even a small donation would go a long way toward that goal. We are also in the process of releasing a publication to be distributed at the end of the year of families who made our various educational opportunities possible. We would be honored to include your name in this. If you are in a position to make a donation, please go to https://www.unitedjewishschool.org/donate/. We’d love to bring this exciting educational program to Grand Rapids!


Cantor David Fair




Am I Ready for the New Year?

Am I Ready for the New Year?

Am I ready?

The Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days) are nearly here and I keep asking myself those three words: Am I ready?

These four weeks that lead up the High Holidays is the Jewish month of Elul. This month is the time when Jews are invited to take a look at where we are, spiritually. We ask ourselves:

  • How do I want to exist in this upcoming year?
  • How have I treated other people? Am I showing my loved ones enough appreciation?
  • How have I treated myself? Am I taking care of myself?
  • Am I accomplishing my generosity goals?
  • Am I spiritually who I want to be? 

But to be honest– that’s a lot! It’s overwhelming. Where do I even begin?

The Rabbi teaches a class every Elul called “Eat, Learn, Understand, Listen,” where we use a book called “For Every Season” by Jeff Bernhardt to guide us in a spiritual exploration. Recently, the Rabbi couldn’t make it, so I taught the class. We began by examining the prayer “Atah V’chartanu,” and we discussed what it means to call ourselves “the chosen people” and to be a “light upon the nations.” But before we knew it, the conversation had veered into a different direction. We found ourselves talking about “T’shuvah” and what this concept really means. We talked about what are the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah (Ten Days of Awe) and what is our role during this time. And suddenly, I felt like I had a path.


Apologies. What I am going to make apologies. I am going to go to every person in my life and say, “Have I done anything this past year that has hurt you?” And when they respond, I’m going to do my very best to offer an open and curious heart. 

What I’m not going to say:

  • “I’m sorry you were hurt from what I said.”
  • “I’m sorry if that upset you.”
  • “I’m sorry, but please try to understand…”
  • “Why are you just telling me about this now?”
  • “I just wish you had……”
  • “If you had only….”

What I am going to say:

  • “Can you explain that again? I’m not sure I quite understand why that hurt you, but I really want to. Can you rephrase that?”
  • “Do you mind if I write this down? I just want to make sure I’m following.”
  • “Okay, I think I understand. Do you mind if I repeat back to you what you just said? I just want to make sure I’m understanding.”
  • “I see why you were hurt. Your pain makes sense to me. Honestly, that would upset me, too.”
  • “I didn’t realize that until now. This is new information for me. So, I need some time to process this so that I can respond to you in an authentic way. I’m feeling a little bit flooded at the moment. Do you mind if revisit this conversation tomorrow at 3:00, when I’ve had some time to really think about what you’ve said.”
What I have to avoid is the urge to justify my actions. I want to explain my very good reason for doing what I did or saying what I said. But if this relationship is truly worth saving, the person will say, “Thank you. I really appreciate you owning that. It really hurt me and I’m still healing. But now I want to know why. Why did you act like that?”


Storytime: Years ago, my Mother was very sick. My friend of ten years, Angel, invited me to have dinner with her parents at a fancy restaurant in New York City. I was a total jerk for the entire dinner. I complained about the food, insulted the decor, argued with her Mom, just, wasn’t a very nice person. She was furious with me. I ruined the entire dinner. She came to me afterward and really let me have it. Was I gracious and humble? No way! I was defensive and offended that she was accuse me of acting untoward. I was too self-unaware to even realize it was because I was wracked with angst about my Mom’s deteriorating health, so I didn’t mention that. Years later, after my Mom died and I moved away from New York, met Corey, and we were living in Evanston, I really had had the time to reflect. I had been in such pain, not having Angel in my life for the past several years. I wrote her a letter — a real, handwritten letter. 

I knew I had to be careful with this letter, so I thought a lot about it. Without publishing the entire letter, here’s the cliff notes version:

I realize now that I really hurt you. I can’t believe I acted like that — seriously. It feels like that was a different person. I’ve thought a lot about this and I keep thinking of how hurt you must have been. You didn’t deserve that. I ruined the entire dinner. You were so kind to invite me and your family paid for me. I should have shown you appreciation, but I didn’t. I treated you all terribly. And when you confronted me, I was defensive and offended. I ignored how much courage it must have taken to actually try to have that conversation with me. I am sorry, Angel. Please know that I will never act like that ever again. I love you and miss you.

There were two things I was proud that I didn’t say. I didn’t justify my actions and I didn’t ask for forgiveness. Angel needed my love — she didn’t need my excuses and my reasons. Also, I’m not going to ask her for anything — even forgiveness. That would make this about me, and it isn’t about me. It’s about her healing.

Angel got in touch me a month later. She thanked me and appreciated this. And because her and my relationship was truly worth saving, she said, “Why did you act like that?” And I told her. I told her that my grief was overwhelming me and I was spinning out of control, not just with her, but with everyone in my life. And she understood. Now, our relationship is back on track. We are closer than ever. Our relationship is more genuine and authentic than it ever was.

This is my prayer for anyone who reads this: Apologize and let your apology be healing for everyone involved. How do you do that? Have the self-awareness to know that you can be a good, amazing, loving, kind, generous person AND you are capable of hurting people. Good people make mistakes and good people can tolerate knowing that they hurt other people.

Shanah tovah um’tukah (May you have a good and sweet new year),

Cantor David