By Mike Rosenberg
Rosh Hashanah begins next Sunday night, September 13. For the Jewish world the holiday culminates a month of a process called cheshbon hanefesh – literally “an account of the soul.” This is an experience in individual and communal introspection, taking stock of our lives and considering how we can improve.
For scores of Bedford residents and organizations, cheshbon hanefesh has been a continuous process for more than a year and a half. The discovery of anti-Semitic graffiti and offensive children’s games was a catalyst for a multi-faceted approach to examining the community’s appreciation of diversity and how to strengthen and enhance it.
The outcome has been gratifying –a new Bedford Embraces Diversity committee and its sparkling multicultural festival, a plethora of changes in the schools, and overall heightened sensitivity and inclusiveness.
Bedford Embraces Diversity
Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills was the driver of this narrative. When the episodes came to his attention, the superintendent could have simply waved them off as the work of a few misguided young people. Instead he used them as a launching pad for honest reflection and execution, taking the offensive with forthright letters to parents and a series of public meetings.
“When I went to meetings that Jon Sills organized, I was impressed with the number of attendees, and all the information they shared,” said Valerie Rushanan, vice chair of Bedford Embraces Diversity. “Our community-based committee was one result of those meetings. Some discussions showed that several other groups in Bedford didn’t always feel comfortable, so our committee broadened its scope.”
“My feelings of frustration gave way in the aftermath of the episodes to confirmation of what I know to be the real Bedford. This was through appreciation of the citizens who spoke out against these episodes and got involved to celebrate Bedford’s diversity and acceptance of all members of our community,” said Town Manager Richard Reed, a visible presence at those early meetings.
So was Rabbi Jill Perlman, a resident who is assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington. “I was comforted by the fact that without hesitation, our town’s leaders of all faiths stepped up to speak out against acts of anti-Semitism… There was a general understanding that what affects one of us affects us all,” she said.
“Whatever our religious, racial, ethnic, or other identities, too often the majority culture is oblivious to the reality of those in the minority. A myth is propagated that the majority represents the ‘norm.’ Positions of privilege are defended and enforced,” said the Rev. John Gibbons, pastor of First Parish Church. “The best thing about the incidents of anti-Semitism in Bedford is that Bedford has not been oblivious.”
“The incidents motivated us to deepen and extend the district’s long-standing commitment to our core values of equity and diversity,” Sills asserted. “These values animate our mission to prepare students to be effective citizens in our pluralistic democracy and increasingly connected global community.”
“Our commitment derives as well from a recognition that the academic achievement of our own increasingly diverse student body depends upon our better understanding of their differences, and our ability to create classrooms in which each student feels safe to take intellectual risks and to grow,” he added.
Bedford’s Inaugural Multi-Cultural Festival
Marilou Barsam, chair of the diversity committee, said the community conversations were “an outpouring of support for taking a stand, in recognition that Bedford is a no-hate community and wants to support its own diversity.”
Barsam and several others began regular meetings to construct the multicultural festival. Participants included long-time resident Rachel Murphy, who was active in the former Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford; Rabbi Susan Abramson, who with Police Chief Robert Bongiorno was the focus of a favorable Boston Globe Magazine cover story this summer on Bedford’s response; and a professional from the Anti-Defamation League.
Months of preparation culminated with a day-long celebration of diversity, with cultural and educational components that drew hundreds of people to the high school on a Sunday in mid-April. There was music, dance, kids’ activities, crafts, food, story-tellers, panelists and the keynote speaker, a Holocaust survivor.
“It was most impressive to see so many families and performers in native dress from so many countries, showing that in Bedford, we will not tolerate any type of hate acts, and we promote harmony regardless of differences. The festival made Bedford residents a lot more aware of the differences in our community, and energized many people to support our cause of education and cooperation,” Rushanan said.
“It was hugely rewarding,” Barsam asserted. “All the different cultures under one roof being together and celebrating was something we were very proud to see.”
In the Bedford Schools
Claudia Fox Tree, veteran Native American educator, was an active participant in the aftermath of the episodes. She applauded the response of the public schools.
“Jon (Sills) took a risk to ‘go public’ and allow a window into what was happening in Bedford,” she said. “He forged a relationship with social justice organizations; provided much needed professional development for faculty and staff; built relationship with community organizations; revised curriculum K-12; and improved the Peer Leaders programs. He also established a K-12 Equity and Diversity Support Group of teachers who are/will be leaders with these particular initiatives. What is amazing is that he did it in just over one year.”
“Before the graffiti was discovered, our district’s Equity and Diversity Committee had begun planning a district-wide professional development workshop on conducting difficult conversations about race,” Sills noted. “But the alarming examples of prejudice, hate and ignorance that were uncovered caused us to re-evaluate our efforts and determine that we needed a more systematic approach to equipping our students with the dispositions, skills and understanding needed to recognize and eschew bias, appreciate diversity, and become upstanders in the face of injustice.”
Specifically, during the past year the Bedford schools have embarked in several directions, the superintendent said:
- Davis School adopted the Teaching Tolerance curriculum and regularly communicated its social-emotional goals with parents. Each grade incorporated five new diversity-related books into classroom study. “The kindergarten teachers have planned backwards from their traditional and wonderful Davis Town culminating project to infuse the curriculum with learning objectives related to community,” Sills noted.
- Lane School focused the summer reading recommendations around diversity-related topics. The third grade has incorporated Superflex, a children’s social thinking program, into their morning meetings for all students. Lane organized a Women in Science event that brought women scientists into every class, and the faculty has planned an international celebration for October.
- At JGMS, the sixth grade course is now organized around the question, “What is a just world?” It ties into global issues and includes an expanded world religions unit. The seventh grade curriculum also has become more global, and addresses the question, “What happens when cultures interact?” The eighth grade course has been completely revised to include a half-year of civics and a half-year on the Civil Rights Movement.
- At BHS, an expanded Peer Leader program focuses on leadership development, appreciating differences and standing up for others. Last school year assemblies with guest speakers featured a Holocaust survivor and a former Freedom Rider. “After a student aired her controversial and provocative video about her perceptions about race on the high school morning news broadcast, the principal held an open discussion attended by 150 students and many teachers conducted difficult conversations about race in their classrooms about the incident — a clear change in practice from previous years.”
For decades all teachers have been required to take an anti-racism course within their first three years, the superintendent continued. “We have created powerful achievement-gap closing programs for students of color, and gender equity initiatives in athletics and the sciences; and at each school, teachers have organized celebrations of diversity and have, in their own classrooms, enriched the curriculum to become more inclusive.”
“We have audited the literature at all four schools in order to ensure the inclusion of a culturally diverse range of authors and topics,” Sills said. The schools also began a partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, which has helped revise the middle school social studies curriculum, conducted district-wide and school-based professional development workshops, hosted teachers at multi-district seminars, and trained our high school peer leaders in anti-bias leadership.
Working Toward the Future
Advocates agree that much work remains to be done.
“Reports of anti-Semitism have disappeared from the schools, but some people in the community still make offensive comments, directed against various groups,” Rushanan said. “We are planning a multicultural festival for next spring, but will separate and expand the educational portion to create a new event, probably during the winter.”
“One new goal is for people from different groups to speak directly with each other in an educational activity. Talking about differences is not taboo; on the contrary, we think it’s essential to discuss differences openly, so we’ll help people learn how. We’ve been pretty successful in reaching people who are already interested in diversity, but want to reach a broader audience.”
“Anti-Semitism — as well as racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, elitism and other prejudices that ennoble some while demeaning others — persist and sometimes thrive in Bedford. Recent incidents of anti-Semitism have caused us to pay attention, to notice, and to be a little less oblivious. There remains much more for us to see,” Gibbons commented. “Obviously our work is not done – it’s a big job. The town needs to focus on how we can bridge the gap. We have a lot of work to do — and the rest of the country does, too.”
“The evidence that I can see is that initiatives are working,” Fox Tree observed. “On the other hand, some issues are long standing and have not had the attention they deserved.” Referencing the student video, she said, “African-American students have been reporting issues for years and felt unheard. They were, justifiably, angry when the concerns by the Jewish community were made public, with forums, town-wide support, and almost instant action. “
“If we don’t understand the true issue, it can never really be addressed, and will keep coming around again and again,” she continued. “When a story becomes about the ‘politics’ instead of the pain and hardships that students of color experience in their community, then we need to take a closer look. Jon (Sills) set up a climate where kids feel like they can finally talk, and that’s what you’re getting — the voices of kids of color. This is actually a very good thing! We need to listen.”
Mike Rosenberg is a member of the Bedford Embraces Diversity board.