12 January 2011

We Can Do Better: Rabbi Andy Bachman Statement on Millennium 2 and John Jay Campus

Along with several members of CBE who work in the public school system, I attended the community meeting about the proposed opening of Millennium High School in Park Slope at John Jay High School. 

I was heartened by the cogent and articulate expressions made by those in attendance during my time there--from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.  I was hoping to make a public statement as a community leader and since my duties back at Congregation Beth Elohim where I serve demanded my return to the synagogue for a memorial service for Jewish artist Debbie Friedman, I take this opportunity to share my "two minutes" of speaking time here.

Public Statement by Rabbi Andy Bachman, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, Park Slope, on proposed opening of Millennium School at John Jay High School
Friends and neighbors, I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.  I am Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue community serving Brooklyn since 1861--when Abraham Lincoln was President, the country was in a Civil War, and African Americans were not fully free.  To be rooted in a community for 150 years and join in the shared commitment to sacred responsibility not only for those members of the Jewish tradition who affiliate with our synagogue but for the lives of the thousand members of our broader community--children, families and faculty of our Early Childhood Center, After-School program, and Summer Day Camp--Congregation Beth Elohim is privileged to carry out the words of the prophet Isaiah which adorn our Main Sanctuary:  "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples."

All are truly welcome at CBE because we believe that all are welcome in Brooklyn, regardless of race, faith, ethnicity, income and sexual orientation.  And what's true for CBE and true for Brooklyn ought to be true for our public school system as well--each child has the right and our Department of Education has the sacred obligation to ensure fair and equal access to educational funding and resources regardless of race, income or neighborhood where one lives.

Speaking as one observer of events, it appears to me that the students, faculty and families of those schools currently housed at John Jay High School have not been accorded the equality of treatment and fairness in funding that ought to be the right of every student in our public school system.  As unfathomable as it may seem, in our own neighborhood in Park Slope, we are likely witnessing, in our time, the historically anachronistic occurrence of a "separate and unequal" educational system which has deprived the John Jay campus of the funding and support it rightfully deserves.  If this is shown to be true, this is a grave injustice that we must not tolerate in our midst.

CBE members send their kids to public schools; CBE members are teachers and administrators in the public schools.  My wife Rachel and I send all three of our children to public school and our eldest will be attending high school next year.  It's this commitment to the enriching democratic life of this city that we share with our neighbors tonight.  And, in the broadest terms, like many members of CBE, we are a part of a faith community that believes fervently in the public education system.  John Jay students, though following a variety of faith traditions, have worked at CBE--as camp counselors and after-school teachers--and before that, were students in our After School and Day Camp programs.  "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples."

As students of history, we ought not to take lightly the words "Separate But Equal."  In fact, the fight for equality was achieved by all people of goodwill, including, on many occasions, important alliances between African Americans and Jews.  Just this morning in the newspaper, I read several moving remembrances by rabbis, now in their seventies and eighties, who recalled with pride their honor in having been arrested and jailed during a critical fight for justice in our country alongside the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement, declaring that Jews stood beside Blacks in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.  And as the Senior Rabbi of Brooklyn's largest Reform synagogue, I declare myself equally dedicated to those principles of freedom, justice and equality today.

If it's true that the John Jay campus has been chronically underfunded; and if it's true that through misleading information the Department of Education has attempted to open Millennium 2 in Brooklyn without a truly fair and equal attempt to improve the John Jay campus for its existing students and faculty, then we ought to raise our voices against this injustice and demand fairness for all students regardless of race, income or background.  There is no question that Brooklyn is sorely in need of more improved public school options--not only for the children of Park Slope but for all the children of this borough.  In a democracy, we must remain committed to an educational system that sees the potential in every human being regardless of their origin.

I have a friend and mentor in her eighties, a brilliant and tough Jewish woman, who was a lawyer working for the American Jewish Congress in 1954 when Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer for NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  My mentor is one of the people who reached out to Dr. Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark about their work and research which proved that "separate but equal" was actually psychologically damaging to African American students.  That "footnote" to history was the shared effort of two of America's many sacred narratives--Blacks and Jews in the ongoing struggle for equality--and as a rabbi in this community, standing on the shoulders of my teachers, I dedicate myself to this community for a fair and equitable resolution to this educational challenge we face tonight.

Twice a year--at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--our Main Sanctuary doors with Isaiah's words are thrown open and nearly two thousand people enter our holy space to ask themselves and their God in what ways they may have done better in the past year.  Isaiah's words--Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples--could not ring more true tonight.  We know this truth in our hearts--our educational system in this great city of our must be a fair and equal educational system for all people.  We can do better.

Thank you.


Eric McClure said...

Eloquently stated, Andy.

Thank you.

Audrey Bachman said...

This is perfect.

I'm proud to have you as my daddy and stand behind you with this statement all the way.

nancy said...

Please keep shouting this message. Quality, inclusive schools are essential to strong communities. John Jay students have always been treated more like suspects, perpetrators and future inmates than like children of our community, citizens, and future taxpayers. It's really encouraging that students there are organizing and making their voices heard. They still have hope that people will respond and justice will prevail. I hope they're right.

brooklynbreeder said...

Very well said. Thanks for weighing in. And I love that your daughter is commenting too!