A Northwood High School junior and his father are seeking an apology from the teenager’s principal for being required to produce a letter from their rabbi for permission to wear a yarmulke to school.
A yarmulke, or kippah, is a kind of Jewish head covering typically worn by men when they pray. Some Jewish men wear them all day. Many kippahs are small, but the one that Caleb Tanenbaum wore to school last week was a large, black hat that had been knitted by his mother and which covered his dreadlocks.
An administrator in the cafeteria asked Caleb to remove the hat, the student recalled, but he declined, saying it was for religious purposes.
Principal Henry Johnson Jr. also challenged his hat. “This wasn’t what we traditionally see as a yarmulke or a kippah. ... It looked like the head covering we see some Rastafarians wear,” he said Friday in an interview. He also had not noticed Caleb wearing any kind of religious head covering before, he said.
“We usually don’t question any student’s religion or their head coverings,” Johnson said. “But when you have all these different kids, and all these different religions and cultures, we have to validate sometimes — is this religious or is it just something you are trying to wear because it’s a fad.”
Caleb, who was born in Jerusalem and attended mostly Jewish private schools before Northwood, said that Jewish people wear all different kinds of head coverings, and that he is trying to re-embrace his Judaism. He told the school officials to call his parents and check.
A phone call home verified what Caleb had said, but the principal still asked for a letter from the family’s rabbi.
The family did secure a letter from the rabbi at Aish DC in Bethesda, but Caleb’s father was upset.
“I thought the principal overstepped his bounds,” said Steven Tanenbaum of Silver Spring. Once he and his wife confirmed what his son said, “that should have been enough,” he said.
Montgomery County public schools has no specific guidelines prohibiting the wearing of hats — religious or otherwise. The Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook says that students cannot be punished for their dress unless it is “lewd, vulgar, or obscene,” for example, or “promotes the use of tobacco, alcohol or drugs.”
Even a visit to the school system’s home page shows a picture of four children reading together, including one who has his head covered.
“We have an extremely diverse community; we recognize the religious significance of head coverings,” said Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig. But it’s up to principals to set more specific dress code policies at their schools, he said.
Northwood High School has a diverse enrollment, and it’s not uncommon for other Jewish or Muslim students to wear head coverings in school. Caleb said he felt singled out because he didn’t know any other students who had been asked to show a permission letter.
“He wanted me to prove my religion,” Caleb said.
His father said he would like to see a more clear and consistent policy about head coverings in the school system. He plans to meet with the principal next week to discuss his concerns.
This post has been updated since it was first published.