April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, Rabbi, Cong. Beth Sholom, Teaneck

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak this evening. My name is Joel Pitkowsky and I am the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. I am honored to be in my13th year at my synagogue and I cherish being part of the interfaith community of this great town.

I am here to share a few ideas with you concerning the recent walk out from Teaneck High School and what I hope will happen moving forward.

First of all, all of our students, every single one of them, needs to feel safe in school, both physically and emotionally. Full stop.

Moving on, I believe that student participation in our democracy and student voices being heard is a profoundly positive development. I have no wish to silence students or to give them the impression that what they think does not matter. At the same time, the language we use when we protest or speak out matters a great deal. For some Jews, including myself, the phrase ‘From the River to the Sea’ is a clear call for either the destruction of the sovereign state of Israel, where half of all the Jews in the world live or the expulsion of all the Jews who live there.

I understand that some people who chant this phrase do not intend that meaning to be understood, but it is important for those people to realize that many Jews do hear it that way. Leaving the law and school policy aside for a moment, it should be a vital part of everyone’s education to think about the words they say and the impact those words have on people around them.

In addition, to call Israel’s actions a genocide almost certainly results in a large percentage of the Jewish community not listening to anything else you say, because all we heard was the word ‘genocide’, a word we know all too well because we have been victims of an actual genocide. Let me be clear-I think that anyone can criticize Israel’s actions and that criticism can be legitimate, as long as it is based on fact and not on double standards or demonization. Please, teach your students to choose their words carefully.

I believe it also true that a person can articulate a pro-Palestinian viewpoint and not be anti-Israel or antisemitic. Just as a person can believe, as I do, that Palestinian civilian deaths are a tragedy and that Israel’s war is just and moral. That is the kind of nuanced thinking that I would like to hear from our scholars, and frankly, from our adults as well.

Finally, I want to urge the Board of Education to address the tensions that currently exist in our community through a natural avenue-education. We should strive to teach our scholars the following:

1. How to speak with each other and disagree with each other in a respectful manner

2. How to build and nurture a diverse community

3. Engage in classes and discussions in order to gain knowledge about Israel and Judaism, the Arab world, Islam and Palestinians so that discussions, arguments and debates can be made in a scholarly way, based on fact and not internet rumors, building people up intellectually rather than breaking them down on a personal level.

Thank you.

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