The chant started innocently with four words from one or two people.
“Tuesday is Jews’ Day!”
As I recall my introduction to anti-Semitism in seventh grade, about a dozen classmates rode with me on the 10-minute bus ride every Tuesday afternoon from our suburban middle school to the local synagogue for our Hebrew School studies.
The chant began on the second or third week with presumed recognition that there were suddenly Jewish kids on the school bus. I don’t know why they cared. I don’t know why they needed to vocalize their thoughts.
Over time, the chant grew with more voices.
“Tuesday is Jews’ Day! Tuesday is Jews’ Day! Tuesday is Jews’ Day!”
I don’t know why they said it. I don’t know if they knew what they said.
I suppose that because of my elementary school experience of being teased for wearing glasses, ridiculed for being smart, and made fun of for the name Ari, the crescendo of those chants became too much.
Saying “No” didn’t work.
So, I told my parents about it. My Hebrew School classmates told their parents about it. The bus driver could only do so much. I assume the school administration got involved because the chants shortly ended.
It was a while before I recognized the experience as anti-Semitic. I called it for what it was: a group of kids chanting about Jews. Only when I talked to adults about the experience did their response change my beliefs.
As a high school senior, I promoted human rights when I founded a chapter of Amnesty International.
I don’t remember why I chose AI specifically but I’m guessing that it was connected to history class discussions about the recent repeal of apartheid legislation in South Africa. Unsatisfied with the preexisting choices of student clubs that didn’t deal with humanitarianism, I took initiative.
After recruiting a faculty advisor and approval by the principal’s office, the international organization sent me seemingly-nonstop distribution of flyers and other materials. I distributed them at meetings that grew, over time, in quantity of attendees and frequency of meetings. I don’t remember if we had any events but I’m sure we did stuff out of the classroom.
It was natural for me to promote social justice during my post-college years. I was appointed to a leadership team for Jewish InterAction, a nonprofit social group for young adults in the Boston area. The group had two programmatic themes: Jewish enrichment and social justice. I chose the latter.
One of my motivations was graduating college with a degree in sociology. I was suddenly an unofficial expert on race, ethnicity, and social class.
When I heard about JI, I was excited about the prospect of getting involved with an organization to fight the damaging mentality that I dealt with during childhood.
We organized and promoted speaker panels, fairs, and other events throughout the region to educate the masses about prejudice, discrimination, and injustice in our communities.
It would be seven years until I learned about criminal justice. I was in a graduate school program for a Master’s degree in Public Administration when I enrolled in an elective seminar on the U.S. correctional system.
The criminal justice department was located in the undergraduate classroom building. All of my classmates were first- and second-year students in the CJ graduate program, so I fit in nicely as we shared our respective course loads.
From textbook discussions to current events, I learned about the police, the prosecutors, and the courts. I gained knowledge about the history, practices, and statistics regarding convictions, sentencing, recidivism, and rehabilitation. The professor invited guest speakers from the state judicial branch to answer our questions, and I vaguely remember a former inmate talking to us about life behind bars.
I was fascinated. I got an A- in the course.
Today, as the country struggles to promote police reform and fight decades of senseless Black American deaths, I think back to my middle school days in a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant community when I was victimized for my religion.
I don’t have the experience of life as a Black American. My history of white privilege does not extend to my Black friends. But, I know what it means to stand up for your beliefs. I know what it means to get angry about stagnation and wanting to do something about it.
Activism is defined as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”
Those controversial issues typically involve social or political change.
My best experience of supporting political change is the time I campaigned for public office. Looking back at my six years as an elected city councilman, I remember the joy of knocking on doors, introducing myself, and explaining why I was running. I debated. I argued. I plead my case and shared my passions.
I gained the people’s trust and respect. They elected me and re-elected me twice. I’m forever grateful.
I have a lifetime of experiences in the field of justice. I respect the struggle between power and authority. I support my brothers and sisters in their quest to live and breathe. I don’t think they (and we) are asking for too much.