Praying With Your Legs: An Expat’s Perspective

A group held a “Justice 4 George” rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. (Leah Larocque/CTV News Ottawa)

I logged into my Google Meet on Wednesday, ready for another adventure in Grade 6 Tefillah, and as each 11-and 12-year old joined up, I noticed that a significant number of them had changed their avatars to symbols and signs of social protest.  Here I sit, an American expatriate living and working in Canada’s capital, heading up a community Jewish day school where expressions of social justice and repair are logical conclusions to curricular content, and while the grownups carefully plan what is and what is not appropriate to teach, to discuss and to do – while I struggle to decide whether and how to use my voice – a group of (mostly) white, Jewish Canadian children with little to no education in American race relations, little to no experience of racism or prejudice, and little to no understanding of police brutality have already left me behind.

Yesterday, I had a chance to participate in a very special program and conversation with our Grade 5 students and Special Guest Tande Maughn and we are gearing up for a Middle School one next week.  But the impetus did not come from me.  Grade 5 General Studies Teacher Melissa Thompson took the lead.  While I struggled to decide whether and how to engage our Canadian Jewish school in an American social protest movement, our teachers – almost none of whom share my American background or education – left me behind.

Why?

Lots of unsatisfying reasons…

In March of 2018 (my first year in Canada), I wrote a response to Parkland and Las Vegas where I expressed my disorientation,

…a strong feeling that I cannot quite put my finger on – somewhere sour between FOMO (fear of missing out) and JOMO (joy of missing out).  I feel motivated to do something, grateful to not have to, left out of a conversation I don’t want to have to be in, but feel guilty for missing out on…I have neither an audience nor an address.

The issue there was, of course, gun violence.

Now even when working in the States, I always took great care not to wade too deeply into matters of controversy and politics over the years.

Why?

Before moving to Ottawa, we spent 12 years in Nevada and Northern Florida deeply embedded in Jewish communities whose purple and [Republican] red political hues contrasted sharply with our deep [Democratic] blue upbringing and bicoastal lives to that point.  We have learned to respectfully disagree with dear friends whose views [on guns] run counter to our own.  We are proud Americans.  We were proud when we lived in California, New York, Nevada and Florida.  We are proud now that we live in Canada.

So there is a part of this that is about having had my cultural and political bubble healthily punctured to welcome people of good intent with very different views than my own brought in.  But I don’t think my reticence is just about being worried about injecting myself (and by proxy the school) into a polarized place.

There is certainly a sense that I don’t know enough about the different history of Black Canadians.  [Just saying “Black” is hard for me to type as I have been conditioned to say “African American”.  When we moved here, one of my daughters asked me what we should call “African Americans” in Canada?  African Canadians?  It is still hard for me to say “Black” without feeling insensitive.  That’s a trivial example of cultural bias for an American living abroad.]  I don’t know enough about the relationship between the Canadian Jewish Community and the Black Canadian Community to make best meaning of this moment.  And so part of my reluctance to speak is fear of being ignorant.

Our speaker in Grade 5 came to us and spoke from her heart and, thus, touched ours.  I told the students that one of the bravest things you can do is to allow yourself to be vulnerable to others.  And so, I should try to live up to that myself.  To say nothing would suggest that I have no stake in this issue, that it neither impacts me nor is it incumbent upon me to participate in.  But as a citizen and as an educator, as a human being and as a Jew, I do have a stake, I am impacted and I do believe it is incumbent upon me to participate.  And I will, like many others, have to struggle to figure out what participation looks like because I am unwilling to remain forever a bystander.  Are we our brother’s keeper? What does that keeping look like on this issue and at this time?

If Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described his marching with Martin Luther King Jr. as “praying with legs,” could risk life and limb to make the world a better place, I can and should do more.  If we want our schools and our children to really matter to black (and brown and impoverished and diverse and etc.) lives in our communities, we will need to do more than engage in hashtag activism and social media blackouts.  We will need to engage with people, even if doing so is complicated by social distancing.  That’s what we did yesterday in Grade 5.  That’s what we are doing next week in our Middle School.  Small steps forward, but steps nonetheless.

The truth is that to stay on the sidelines for fear of political correctness or for fear of getting a few facts mistaken would be an abnegation of our responsibility.  All we can do is our best.  We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts.  We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.  We acknowledge that when one of us cannot speak, then none of us can speak.  And as we have been reminded yet again, when one of us cannot breathe, then none of us can easily draw a breath.

For we are all made in the image of “the God in whose hand thy breath is in” (Daniel 5:23).

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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