Manitoba

From the history books into the present day: school discussions on anti-Semitism shift

Jewish students in Winnipeg are finding ways to come to terms with anti-Semitism in their world.

Winnipeg’s Jewish students want to take pride in their identities, history after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Grey Academy students, from left to right, Sarah Jacobsohn, Anna Zipursky and Gilad Stitz, say they're proud of the community response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. (Aviva Jacob/CBC)

Jewish students in Winnipeg are finding ways to come to terms with anti-Semitism in their world.

Across the globe, the Jewish community is still in mourning after last week's shooting at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead.

For young people in the community, the attack brought their discussions from the history class into the present day.

Students at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg aren't strangers to anti-Semitism. Remembering the suffering of their ancestors is an important tenet of their Jewish upbringing. Many of the students themselves have relatives who lived through or perished in the Holocaust.

"As Jewish people, we are constantly aware of anti-Semitism," said Sarah Jacobsohn, a Grade 12 student at Gray. "Our whole history has been littered with anti-Semitism."

For students like Jacobsohn, that awareness became more immediate for the first time this week.

And it's changed the conversation in class.

"In my classes we've spent entire periods talking about what happened and how people feel about it: what are the next steps, how do we move forward, how do they feel about anti-Semitism," said Judaic Studies teacher Avi Posen. "There's a lot of questions, and there's a lot of concerns."

 If anything, right now, I'm the most proud to be a Jewish person.- Sarah Jacobsohn

Posen has been speaking candidly about the subject in his classes. He teaches students from Grade 8 to Grade 12.

He says he believes talking openly about an event like this will help them deal with the fear they might be feeling.

A worshipper holds his head as he is escorted out of the Tree of Life Congregation by police following a shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP)

That fear is palpable in the school. The hallways are filled with chatter about the shooting.

"What if it happens at synagogue; what if it happens at the next bat mitzvah; what if, what if, what if? It's very scary to think that could have happened here; that could have happened to me," said 13-year-old student Anna Zipursky.

Opening discussions

Zipursky said it's still the main topic of conversation among her friends. As part of the debate team, she's even taken it on as a practice discussion as a way to try to understand what happened and why.

Through those conversations, she said some of that fear starts to fall away.

Posen said the staff at Gray are very proud of the way students are talking about the subject. He said they've calmly expressed some fears and concerns but most of the students are really learning a lot from the news.

"It's horrible that this is what has happened, but it's opened up a discussion," said Posen.

He said the response to the shooting has really opened their community up, not just in Winnipeg but throughout North America. He was in the United States at the time of the attack and said he was moved by the support he saw coming from outside the Jewish communities.

Now he wants his students to feel the same way and to take note of the outside support they're receiving.

Non-Jews showing support

Many of the students and staff at Gray attended the vigil held at Winnipeg's Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Wednesday night.

Posen said he didn't recognize more than half of the attendees.

During one of his classes, he asked the students to raise their hands if they were surprised by how many non-Jewish people were showing their support.

Hundreds of people from all faiths gathered at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Oct. 30, 2018, to remember the 11 people who died in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Tyson Kosik/CBC)

Every single hand went up.

"Seeing so many faces that I've never seen before and so many people of different backgrounds and different faiths, I don't think I've ever felt a stronger sense of community," said Gilad Stitz, a Grade 12 student at Gray.

"I'm part of the Jewish community. That's what I see myself as being. But I don't think I've ever felt a stronger connection to other people."

Students at Gray say they even feel more open to the outside world now, despite their fears.

"I wish there was something more that I could put on my body physically, so people could see me and be like, 'You're a Jew,'" said Jacobsohn. "If anything, right now, I'm the most proud to be a Jewish person."

Jacobsohn​ and Stitz both say this is an important time for them. Events like this have shaped their communities in the past and they think this is no different. Saturday's massacre has become the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history.

They say they fully expect the Pittsburgh shootings to be something the next generations will learn about in school and they want to look back and be proud of the community's response.

About the Author

Aviva Jacob holds a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Avi, along with a small team, was the winner of the 2018 Emerge Media Award in audio storytelling. You can email Avi with story ideas at aviva.jacob@cbc.ca