Two images containing hate speech and distributed on social media by students of Oakland Catholic High School became a teachable moment for the students involved, as well as for the Jewish and Catholic communities, according to two Jewish communal leaders.
One photo, which first was delivered through Snapchat — an application which allows users to share photos that disappear within 10 seconds — showed an 11th-grade girl wearing a shirt with hand-drawn swastikas and a German flag painted on her forehead.
The photo, taken at a party with several other Oakland Catholic girls on May 20, was preserved through a screenshot and sent out via Twitter.
The Twitter tweet went viral, with more than 24,000 views and 11,000 engagements, before it was removed.
Another Oakland Catholic girl sent out a photo that night showing an Asian student with the word “Chink” scrawled on her forehead.
Oakland Catholic suspended the girls and worked with the Jewish community to arrange a meeting with a Holocaust survivor as well as Rabbi Jamie Gibson, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. Gibson has taught classes on Jewish religion, culture and history at Oakland Catholic for the last 11 years through C-JEEP (Catholic-Jewish Education Enrichment Program), an initiative of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
On Tuesday, Gibson and Holocaust survivor Moshe Baran met with the girls, who wrote letters to Gibson apologizing for the incident. They were “remorseful, and felt deep shame for having done this,” Gibson said.
“Each girl expressed deep and personal remorse over her actions,” he said. “They said this verbally in addition to handing me written letters of apology. They are all looking for forgiveness.”
The girls did not realize the magnitude of the impact of the swastika, and that it is still used as a symbol of hate today, according to Gibson.
“These are teenage girls doing stupid things without realizing their import rather than an overt act of anti-Semitism,” Gibson said following his meeting with the girls.
Having Baran at the meeting was impactful for the girls, Gibson said.
“When I asked each of them at the end of our time together to share something, they each said they learned how important it is to not just read about the Holocaust in a book but to hear the personal details of a life from someone like Moshe Baran,” Gibson added.
Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, commended both the Jewish and Catholic communities for swiftly coordinating efforts to address the incident.
“We really worked hard as a community to turn a negative into a positive and to turn it into a teachable moment for the students who spread such hateful things,” Sayles said. “I give a lot of credit to both the Jewish community and the Catholic community for taking the matter seriously and responding appropriately to make the best out of a bad situation.”
A community should not be judged for bad things that happen within it, “but by its responses to those bad things,” Sayles said.
In a joint statement issued by Bishop David A. Zubik, Gibson, and Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, the three faith leaders condemned the incident and expressed “solidarity with anyone who may have seen this image, and our sorrow for the pain it has caused.
“This is a reminder that we can never become complacent,” the statement continued. “A swastika can never be a joke. It represents hatred and genocide. It represents the evil that human beings can do to one another. The swastika is an image that can only be condemned. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander when this image is displayed. This incident makes it clear that we must be vigilant and hold ourselves and each other accountable for the use of words or symbols that demean human dignity. May this incident be an opportunity for all of us to recommit ourselves to pray and work together to overcome prejudice.”
It is imperative that students learn that swastikas symbolize more than just bad memories for Jews, according to Sayles.
“They need to understand that anti-Semitism is a very real and growing phenomenon,” Sayles said.
At the meeting with the girls on Tuesday, Baran told them, “‘you learned the lesson; now you have a mission,’” recounted Gibson. “They know they can’t be involved in these things, and that they need to speak out against it.”
Although there is currently Holocaust education at Oakland Catholic, the girls had not met with a survivor as part of that education, according to Gibson.
“To have survivors speak as part of regular Holocaust education fills out the students’ understanding of not just the events, but of their meaning and consequences,” Gibson said.
Incidents of anti-Semitism should be reported directly to the CRC, said Sayles who noted that when the photo first went viral, several Jewish professionals from various organizations began taking action.
“If there is anti-Semitism, the CRC is the place to go,” he said. “We will serve as the point organization to handle it ourselves, or will delegate it to another organization. Please come to us. The Jewish community needs to speak as one voice.”
The Chronicle will be exploring the state of tolerance education in local schools in a coming issue.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.