The Religious Right
to Wear a Kippah or a Hijab in School
Over the past few days there has been a viral attack on social media against a South Orange teacher who tried to lower a muslim girl's hoodie. It appears that hoodies break the school's dress code. There is accusation and denial regarding the teacher's intent. The teacher asserts it to be accidental: that she was unaware that the girl did not have her customary hijab on underneath, and she stopped when she realized that. The worst attacks against the teacher paint her as deliberately denigrating the value of the hijab. The incident is experienced by the parents and their religious community to be a gross and intentional example of bias and a form of assault. For the teacher, it is a tremendous misunderstanding followed by terrible and false accusations.
As a Jewish community, we have experience, advice and support to offer for all who are involved.
To the parents and the child:
Many of us identify first and foremost with you in this incident. As Jews, we value and understand covering our heads for so many of the same reasons. Many of us wear head coverings to remind ourselves of the need for humility and the ever-loving presence of God in all places and times. Many women in traditional Judaism cover their hair as a protection of their personal modesty, reserved in marriage only for their spouses and closest family to know and experience. Many of our people cover their heads in sacred moments to indicate their intentional participation in a ritual act or prayer - binding them to our people's long and meaningful history.
When our head coverings are removed against our will by others, we are hurt, embarrassed and feel disrespected or demeaned. Many Antisemitic attacks in recent months have taken the form of random assaults knocking off traditional head garb from visibly identifiable Jews in the streets. We identify with your experience. We stand in solidarity with your right to wear your religious clothing and symbols freely and proudly without fear of stigma or oppression, and we will work in all spheres to support those rights for you and for us.
To the teacher:
Many of us identify immediately with you, as teachers and educators. We value you and your love of teaching. We admire your years of service and know that your skills and heart have been devoted to this child and all children for many years. We hear you and see you for who you are, and identify with the pain and fear that comes from exaggerated accusations, twitter flames and the threats against you that have arisen as a result of this incident. We hear you when you say you had no intent of removing religious clothing, and we believe you. We live in a world where teachers can not touch students, and believe that this incident has dramatically and negatively reenforced that message.
We also identify with you now as a victim of hostility, anger and baseless hatred that has been proliferated on the internet against you. We share that victimization far too often, and we stand in solidarity with your right to live and work in peace and to be protected from those who wish you harm. We will work in every way we can to make sure that you are safe and that community law enforcement understands the credible nature of those threats against you.
To the school:
Cultural competence is the responsibility of the administration. Every teacher, counselor, coach and employee must be trained in modern understandings of diversity, whether it is racial, cultural, ethnic, gender identity or religious. This circumstance was predictable and will certainly happen again. Both the teacher's actions, and the parents' interpretations, demonstrate that school policy is not sufficiently competent and not sufficiently understood in every level of the community. When distrust is the first reaction, not enough relationship building has occurred. It is time to circle back in community forums, parents circles, teacher training and more. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so you have work to do.
To all of us:
Stop the instagram, twitter, facebook, Quora, Reddit, or whatever reactionary flaming and accusing you are a part of. The parents, the child, the teacher and the school are all good people. They have overlapping shared values. It is not so hard to find the way forward. Give them the space they need to confront, converse, heal and rebuild. Be a human - be a mensch.
For More information on Head Coverings and Religious Clothing in Public Schools:
Please read the EXCELLENT legal summary and conclusions from the Intercultural Development Research Association Here.
For a Jewish statement on the values, please see the AntiDefamation League's 2018 statement on dress codes, here.