NEW YORK — The day after the elections, Elliot Prager, the principal of Moriah, a Modern Orthodox day school in Englewood, N.J., was approached by a 9-year-old student in the hallway, who asked him if he was afraid.
“Afraid of what?’ I asked,” Prager recalled.
“Afraid of Obama,” the child replied. “My Mommy and Daddy told me that he doesn’t like Jews and is dangerous.”
Prager later said he was “stunned,” but thought it was an isolated incident. As the day wore on, though, he said he heard a number of reports from students and teachers that were also disturbing, suggesting that a mix of racism, strong concern for the welfare of Israel and misguided parenting had combined to make students fearful.
“Some students who voted for [Sen. Barack] Obama in our mock election were intimidated to tears,” he recalled.
Prager took the unusual step of writing a lengthy letter to the parent body of the school, which has 967 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. He called his e-mail: “Student Responses to the Election: Profound Shock and Dismay.”
Prager wrote that for students in a school that emphasizes ethical values and the religious belief in kavod ha-briot — respect for every human being — to berate classmates for voting in mock elections “for a black man” was deeply disappointing.
“I cannot help but wonder if our concerns about prejudice and racism are valid only when it comes to our own people,” he wrote. “I cannot help but wonder how we are supposed to succeed in our mission of teaching middot [values] when so many children are apparently being exposed to unwarranted distortions of information based not on political biases, but biases which go to the very core of common decency and respect for our fellow human beings.”
He asserted that the school will continue to speak out against all forms of prejudice and he called on parents to be “proactive and vigilant” in seeking to raise children “whose only hatreds and prejudices will be those directed at injustice and immorality.”
When I spoke to Prager last week, he said that the feedback to his letter to the parent body was “extremely supportive,” with parents and teachers thanking him for taking the lead in addressing this sensitive subject, and some saying it was long overdue.
But he noted that there has been some dissent, as well, including a long anonymous letter, signed “Concerned Moriah Parents” — he had no idea if it was the work of one person or many — that charged him with conflating racial bias and “serious and legitimate concerns” many Jews have about Obama and his views.
Another Modern Orthodox educator disturbed enough by the behavior of students to speak out publicly this week was Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County, a boys’ high school in Teaneck. Rabbi Adler, who is also the spiritual leader of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, told his congregants in a sermon on Shabbat that while change in American policies takes time, some behaviors must change immediately — namely the kind of racist attitudes he observed in school last week.
Judaism’s description of all men and women being created in the image of God “is not a left-wing term,” he said, noting that Jews should take pride in the fact that an African-American was elected president.
Both Rabbi Adler and Prager said they would not have spoken out as they did if the criticism they had heard from students was based on concerns that Obama would be unsympathetic to Israel.
It was the racist comments that motivated them to respond, they said. And the reaction from their constituents was overwhelmingly positive, they noted.
A spot check of educators, rabbis and other leaders in Orthodox communities in the metropolitan area revealed relative degrees of concern about reactions to Obama’s victory. One yeshiva teacher said she was “disgusted” to hear a number of students making anti-Muslim and anti-black statements “beyond inappropriate,” while others seemed oblivious to the historic election results.
Several people connected to the haredi community — including Brooklyn, Monsey and Lakewood — said there was a high level of concern about Obama before the election, but that it has eased in the last week largely because of the president-elect’s post-election statements and the likely look of his administration.
“The paranoia has died down,” one observer said.
“I think it’s calmer,” said talk-show host Zev Brenner. Since the election, the criticism of Obama by callers from haredi circles has greatly decreased, he said. “They’re willing to give him a shot.”
Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, disturbed at some of the comments he has heard, told his congregants on Shabbat that while he did not vote for Obama, the incoming president deserves the respect and cooperation of all Americans.
He said his talk was very well received.
So what is going on here? Are the same adults suspected of expressing bias at home enthusiastically applauding demands that such behavior cease immediately?
Isn’t it true that young people — and adults — who favored Sen. John McCain were sometimes accused of racism when there were plenty of legitimate reasons to be wary of an Obama presidency? And is it unfair to continue to call attention to examples of racial prejudice in a Jewish community that voted overwhelmingly (about 78 percent) for Obama?
There are no easy answers here in trying to parse out how much of the Jewish negativity toward Obama, found almost exclusively in the Orthodox community, was because of his race and how much was based on a deep-seated fear that Israel would suffer under his administration.
But there are too many disturbing statements from “the mouths of babes” to deny or ignore the problem.
Educators are trained to turn important events, including painful ones, into “teaching moments,” and this is an ideal time for day schools to recognize that elements of their community have become so insulated and parochial that young people lack exposure to the full range of American society.
“It’s true that the students don’t meet people who are not like them,” noted Rabbi Chaim Hagler of Yeshivat Noam in Bergen County, N.J. He acknowledged that he and his faculty were surprised at some of the “misguided comments” from students last week, and he made a point, during the school’s observance this week of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, to draw parallels to Germany’s hatred of Jews at the time and reactions to the Obama election.
So did other educators, and Elliot Prager, the Moriah principal, said his school is now planning to form a parent committee to deal with issues like multiculturalism and understanding. “Our approach has to be more comprehensive,” he said, adding that he was gratified that his letter to parents “opened up a tremendous amount of discussion in the community.”
Such steps are to be applauded, but more is needed. Nine-year-olds shouldn’t be afraid of Barack Obama, and we should stop and think hard about the messages we send our children.
(Additional reporting by New York Jewish Week staff writer Steve Lipman. Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)