Merrill is the principal at Portland Jewish Academy in Portland, Oregon. 

Leading a Diverse Community During the War in Israel

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Like many community Jewish day schools around the country, at Portland Jewish Academy (PJA) we don’t always have uniformity of opinion about Israel among our kehillah, especially amongst our parent/guardians, faculty and staff, and alumni. How do we hold two truths in our hearts, minds, and bodies at once? How can we love Israel and also be honest about her flaws? And how can we teach our children to hold these truths, to learn to love this precious homeland of ours, while also questioning the government and its actions?  It is of primary importance, as we walk through this together, to show kavod for everyone’s personal feelings and beliefs about Israel, while keeping our focus on our students.

We encourage our students to ask important questions, to cherish the sanctity of life, to bring their humanity to all that they say and do. This is, after all, what we teach them every day: to deal with conflict as rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace who can listen actively, and weigh all parts of a problem. This active listening, when encountering a difficult issue, gives us an opportunity to think more clearly and not make snap judgements which might lead to painful encounters. If we can all strive to be rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace, listen actively and with kindness and consider the other person’s story, we can, as a kehillah, take steps to making the world a better place. Many small gestures such as these will grow and multiply and, hopefully, lead to a world filled with people who can listen to and live with each other.

Our School’s Diversity 

PJA is a community Jewish day school in the truest sense of the term. We have families from across the spectrum of Jewish observance and connection, and families who are not Jewish who come to the school seeking a values-based education and a welcoming community in which their children can learn and grow. Many of our families bring their children to PJA as infants, and we have the honor of watching them grow and thrive into young teenagehood until they graduate and leave our halls in 8th grade. Our school is located in a city well known for its activism and progressive politics. PJA and our school’s response to the war in Israel is a reflection of our broad and diverse community in all of these ways. 

As the principal of PJA, my greatest solace during this time of war in Israel and Gaza has come from walking through the doors of our beautiful school every day. On a recent Friday morning in kindergarten, where I have the privilege of helping bring in Shabbat every week, after dropping off his child, a parent came to me teary eyed and said, “These are tears of joy. I feel so lucky to have our child here in this community.” And as we stood there together, the beauty of watching our kindergarteners and 8th graders celebrating each other and getting ready to bring in Shabbat was palpable. 

I have found comfort in being with our kehillah, listening and responding to our children, standing together with our faculty and staff, and comforting families, as we all try to make sense of the tragic times before us. While it is important work to be a listening and open heart, it is also complicated as we open ourselves to the wide range of thoughts and opinions about Israel, its government, and its handling of the war. People’s feelings about the war range from total support of Israel and its decisions, to complete horror at what the army is doing in Gaza and Israeli citizens are doing in the West Bank. These conversations are among the most difficult I have had in my years as a school leader, as I try to put my own personal feelings aside, open my mind to the sometimes confusing thoughts of others, and grapple with all that is before us (and will continue to be before us) together with families, faculty and staff, and students.

A Focus on Action

Our story is not unlike so many Jewish day schools around the world as we all try to respond to our children, hold each other, give support, and maintain a secure learning environment for our students and ourselves. Routine and a sense of normalcy is essential and, at times, very hard to maintain, especially as we center our Israeli teachers and families whose hearts are with friends and dear ones at home, in Israel, who have been called up to serve, who were kidnapped, or murdered on October 7th. As a school whose tagline is “Think for Yourself, Work for the World,” we know that “doing” creates a sense of purpose and hope. 

In our planning, we have tried to identify and focus on things that are not controversial, that feel to us like universal ideas: bringing home the hostages, hoping/praying for peace, and fighting antisemitism. Students created posters expressing love for the people of Israel; we have a greeting card project involving student artwork to raise funds for the kibbutzim so terribly torn by the October 7th attacks; our entire community has created origami doves which will be installed in our lobby as a visual prayer for peace—1800 blue and white doves created by families, children, teachers. 

We are providing training for our teachers, through a variety of resources, on antisemitism and anti-Jewish harm. Likewise, we have sought resources and training for ourselves and our teachers on how to engage in conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially in today’s environment. Because we all want peace, because we can and will never applaud actions that harm and kill others, because as a Jewish people, our hope, our tikvah, is to be able to live side by side in peace and as neighbors.

Supporting People with Different Perspectives 

Like our colleagues at other Jewish schools, we believe Israel deserves to grow and thrive. Like our colleagues, we want to instill a sense of love and loyalty for the land and people of Israel. We also are engaged in nuanced and complicated conversations around Israel’s policies and actions. Even as our hearts and minds are with Israel and our Israeli friends, families, and colleagues, it is essential to also acknowledge the reality of the Palestinian people and the civilians who are being killed in Gaza. We understand that peace has to be at the center of our conversations. 

One of the saddest questions we were asked in the first weeks of the war was from a teacher engaged in conversations with her colleagues, listening to the news and attempting to understand why people were so opposed to a ceasefire. How could she help her students make sense of the idea that Jewish people do not want a ceasefire? Does this mean, she asked, that “I shouldn’t mention the word peace anymore?” It absolutely broke my heart to hear this question, and we spent a bit of time unpacking the difference between seeking peace and calling for a ceasefire.

Praying for Peace

I am writing this in the middle of Hanukkah, 65 days after the terrible events of October 7, which saw 240 Israelis taken violently from their homes in kibbutzim in southern Israel near the border with Gaza, and from the Supernova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, and at least 1,200 others brutally murdered by Hamas terrorists. In these two months, the pain has been constant, and the deep responsibility of supporting our community, one person, classroom, family at a time, knowing that there is a range of needs and perspectives, has been a primary focus. 

Our work at PJA as a community Jewish day school, whether in our classrooms, our hallways, or playgrounds, or when grappling with the very complicated issues of Israel and Gaza that we are all facing today, has never been more important. We pray for peace, for the safe return of all of our hostages, and for the safety and wellbeing of all those in harm’s way.