Hard topic to cover

Hard topic to cover

The posters were created by 10th-graders as part of a class assignment

Photo provided by Debbie Levy
The posters were created by 10th-graders as part of a class assignment Photo provided by Debbie Levy

About a dozen posters covered with swastikas and photographs of Adolf Hitler lining the walls of Upper St. Clair High School were removed last week after school officials received several complaints from Jewish students and their parents.

The posters were created by 10th- graders for an assignment in conjunction with their reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The “pre-reading” activity was conducted in an attempt to “build historical context for reading ‘Night,’” according to Lou Angelo, principal of USC High School. While the poster project has been done at the school for several years, he said, this is the first time the school received complaints.

Students worked in groups to create posters on one of several topics, including “the Jewish faith”; Adolf Hitler; “the gestapo and Nazi power”; concentration camps; and Jewish holidays.

Students hung their posters in the halls on Friday, Jan. 20, Angelo said. That same day, a student complained about one specific poster that was filled with swastikas and the words “white supremacy.” That poster was removed shortly thereafter.

“Early the next week, we became aware that a number of our students were uncomfortable seeing the posters,” Angelo said. “Once we heard that students were uncomfortable, we took them down.”

Sophomore Jason Levy was one of several students who felt uncomfortable seeing swastikas hanging in the hall of his school.

“That’s a hall I have to walk through every day,” Levy said. “Even the ones that had nothing to do with the Nazis — the ones about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — had swastikas on them.”

Last Wednesday, Levy spoke to his guidance counselor, who then left the room to speak to an assistant principal about the student’s concerns. At first, the assistant principal refused to remove the posters, according to Levy.

“He said he wanted the kids to be able to do a gallery walk so that they could experience the fear that Elie Wiesel experienced in the concentration camps,” Levy said. “That reasoning actually offended me. I didn’t think that was a valid reason.”

This is not the first time that Levy, whose family is affiliated with Temple Emanuel of South Hills, has felt uncomfortable being Jewish in the school district.

“People often make Holocaust jokes and Jews jokes,” he said. “They don’t understand it will offend me. I don’t get mad at them, but it makes me upset. They just think it’s funny. They are ignorant, but not in a mean way. People might forget there is a Jew there and go ahead and make the joke. People try to avoid saying them when I’m around or another Jewish kid is around.”

Levy was pleased with school officials’ responsiveness to the concerns of the Jewish students last week.

“They took the posters down, so obviously they were listening,” he said.

“We are pretty satisfied,” echoed Levy’s mother, Debbie Levy, who also met with Angelo about the posters. “I don’t want Upper St. Clair to not teach the Holocaust anymore; I just hope they get some better ideas.”

About 10 Jewish students complained to school officials about the posters, Debbie Levy said, and Rabbi Mark Mahler of Temple Emanuel spoke with school Superintendent Pat O’Toole on Wednesday, Jan. 25.

“From the tone of [O’Toole’s] voice to the content of his comments, he couldn’t have been more caring and sensitive about this,” Mahler wrote in an email.

Mahler had met with O’Toole earlier in the month, along with Rabbis Jessica Locketz, Alex Greenbaum and Amy Greenbaum, “to build bridges of communication when such episodes arise.”

“Our conversation today proves such bridges are sturdy,” Mahler wrote. “Dr. O’Toole concluded by assuring me that if there are further developments, he will be quick to keep me apprised.”

Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, said he met with the school administration in early January to discuss concerns of the Jewish community.

“They were very receptive,” Sayles said. “You don’t judge a community by the bad things that happen there, but by how it responds to those bad things.”

The administration responded “appropriately,” Sayles said. “So often in situations like this, it is not intentional, but a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of the topic. There is a distinction between anti-Semitism and a lack of understanding. Both cause problems, but anti-Semitism is malicious. There was nothing malicious about this.”

Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, has reached out to the high school and offered to work with its teachers on how best to teach the Holocaust, she said.

While nothing has been arranged so far, she hopes to schedule a training session within the next month.

Assigning students to create posters incorporating Nazi symbols, Bairnsfather said, “is not the way we teach the Holocaust now,” because it can “create a hostile environment.”

“It’s a hard topic,” she said. “Often the teachers need support.”

While other schools sometimes assign poster-making in conjunction with studying the Holocaust, “this is the first time I’ve heard about the hallways being decorated with Nazi symbols.”

For Debbie Levy, there was an upside to the incident. “It was a great lesson for the kids,” she said. “Ten Jewish kids went on their own to the principal, and I’m really proud of the kids and the way the school reacted.” Likewise, Angelo appreciates the way the Jewish parents of his students handled the situation. “The parents have been wonderfully supportive,” he said. “They understand the teachers are trying to do their very best.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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