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Opinion Fairfax schools are failing Jewish students

Fairfax County Public School buses. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Anna Stolley Persky is a parent of three children who attend Fairfax County Public Schools.

When my family moved to Fairfax, we fell in love with the area. We were told the schools were among the best in the country. And it’s true. My three children, who are now in high school and middle school, have received an excellent education.

But it is ridiculously hard to raise a Jewish child in Fairfax County Public Schools.

We have been ignored. We have experienced microaggressions, gaslighting and outright anti-Semitism. FCPS prides itself on its equity mission, but that mission has never applied to my Jewish family.

The bulk of our experiences fall under what I like to call Christian privilege. When my twin sons started elementary school, room parents were tasked with “winter holiday” parties. If left unsupervised by Christian parents and teachers, these parties often ended up as Christmas bonanzas, with little concern about alienating the Jews, Muslims or other non-Christian students. I reluctantly became a room parent just to be in on the “winter party” planning, to remind the other parents that maybe we should not play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” because, actually, he’s not coming to my kids’ house this year, or any year. Not all the other room parents with whom I shared duties loved my input.

I find it amusing when my neighbors tell me that the FCPS schools are secular. That’s usually when I remind them about the time Santa showed up to dance around at my daughter’s chorus concert.

And then there was the year I wasn’t a room parent, and another mom forced a Christmas ornament — a shiny green ball with a tinkly bell and a yellow string — on my son and then refused to acknowledge that she made a mistake. My son said he tried to politely refuse the ornament, but the parent insisted he take it. When I wrote the room parents thanking them for the hard work they did, I also mentioned that a Christmas ornament was probably not the most appropriate gift to hand out in a religiously diverse classroom. In response, she wrote me that my son had not received a Christmas ornament but a “holiday sleigh bell” based on ancient Egyptian history. Let’s just say it escalated from there, as I didn’t take kindly to her attempt to gaslight my son or me.

While I found microaggressions and gaslighting at Christmas a little frustrating, the harder challenges came with our ability to celebrate our own holiest days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. FCPS is supposed to have a policy to ensure that tests and other important school matters aren’t scheduled on either of these holidays. This policy is a joke. We have had issues ever year. Teachers, administrators and PTA parents forget or don’t care. Every year, I swoop in and argue over the scheduling of tests, test reviews, school photos, sports events, PTA meetings and even a back-to-school night on our holiest days. Sometimes people apologize, but, more often than not, my concerns are treated dismissively. Sometimes I even meet with outright resistance. One teacher said something like: “Well, I can’t just reschedule everything just because your family has a holiday.”

But the worst problems we experienced had nothing to do with Christmas, Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. In my sons’ sixth grade year, other boys made Nazi salutes when one of my sons walked by and sang “Happy Birthday to Hitler” in the school cafeteria. And then there were the “funny” memes passed around by the other boys — Hitler as Jaws, for example. My sons were not the only Jewish children targeted. To be clear, these type of incidents happen against Jewish students throughout FCPS.

My husband and I implored the school’s administration to help. Initially, we were met with resistance and denial. Eventually, they tried to cobble together some sort of Holocaust education on the fly, which we asked them not to do, because we found the school’s administration incapable of handling the situation appropriately. Throughout our conversations with school administrators, they refused to call the other boys’ conduct “anti-Semitic.” In fact, when we took these conversations to a higher level, the FCPS Office of Professional Learning and Family Engagement, administrators still would not use the term “anti-Semitic.” We were heartbroken by the lack of leadership when it came to addressing the anti-Semitism my sons faced.

FCPS now claims it has a vibrant Office of Equity and Cultural Responsiveness that is training teachers in the district’s equity mission. But I continue to wonder where Jews fit into their concept of equity. Right now, we wait with anxiety to find out whether the FCPS School Board will honor its original intention of listening to the voices of its non-Christian students. We have asked for four holidays off, including the two holiest Jewish days, as part of next year’s calendar. The surrounding counties have already realized that closing school for a few minority religious holidays is the low-hanging fruit in committing to equity. The FCPS administration and several school board members have indicated that they will not honor our request and created a calendar that ignores our pleas. The board votes on March 18.

By honoring our holidays, the FCPS School Board has an opportunity to set an example of embracing diversity. It could assure the growing Jewish population that it cares about us and the challenges we have faced over the years. I hope the board make the right choice. It wouldn’t change the undercurrent against religious minorities overnight, but it could start healing wounds and providing guidance for the rest of the community.

Read more:

Hurunnessa Fariad, Srilekha Palle and Guila Franklin Siegel: Fairfax County’s school board is sowing division. Students of minority faiths deserve better.

Eugene Volokh: ‘Religious Holidays Aren’t Represented Equally on Campus’ — a Catholic campus, that is

The Post’s View: Montgomery should reconsider its school holidays

Kathleen Parker: A holiday feast of lights helps reverse the darkness of 2020