The Day-long Programming for MLK Day
Kayla Minsk and Asher Lytton
Historically, the Friday before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day at AJA has been a day for students to volunteer in the community. With traipsing around Atlanta for service learning projects off the table due to COVID-19, AJA instead designated Friday, January 15 (Dr. King’s actual birthday) as a Day of Learning in his honor — a “Yom Iyun.” Friday’s learning kicked off with a quick introduction from AJA Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz and Senior Grade Representatives Gefen Beldie and Simmy Wilson.
In the first session, titled “What Makes This Jew Different,” Rabbi Shai Rishon and Reuben Formey discussed their perspective of life as African-American Orthodox Jews. Middle School history teacher Mr. David Karpel facilitated the discussion. Rabbi Rishon, also known by his pen name “MaNishtana,” grew up in the Chabad movement and now serves as a Rabbi for the New City Minyan in New York City. He spoke about the way people assume he is not a Jew or treat him differently in the Jewish community because of his race. Reuben Formey, a local Jewish rapper and AJA parent, recalled similar experiences. This discussion was followed by a Q&A based on questions that fifth- through twelfth-grade participants flooded into the chat.
After a ten minute break, students gathered once more on Zoom for the “Black Lives Matter and the Jewish Community” session. Formey and Rabbi Adam Starr of Congregation Ohr HaTorah participated in the panel discussion, along with Dr. Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil, a 20th Century American history professor at Clemson University. Formey began the session by re-defining the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as “Black Lives Matter Also.” Rabbi Starr further explained that, in his opinion, the phrase doesn’t exclude others; rather, he said, it focuses on people who are more vulnerable and in need of support. Nevertheless, to avoid the phrase’s divisiveness, Rabbi Starr explained that he avoids using “Black Lives Matter.” Formey also differentiated between the “Black Lives Matter” cause and movement, and the original organization of the same name, urging support for the former even without prescribing to the latter.
For the third session, Middle and High School students had the opportunity to choose between three sessions. One option, only open to seventh- through twelfth-grade students, was presented by Repair the World Atlanta, a Jewish organization that provides opportunities for volunteers to engage in community service. Participants were given the option to bake challah while learning about “food deserts,” or areas that lack access to affordable fresh and healthy foods. Students learned about the food deserts in Atlanta and the impact that COVID-19 has had on citizens living in food deserts. Limited public transportation has made it difficult for those who rely on busses to get to grocery stores, and lost jobs have made it difficult for some to afford enough substantial food. Students learned about ways they can serve the community, especially as a way to honor MLK’s legacy.
In another session, AJA Athletic Director Coach Rodney Zimmerman and Basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo discussed black relations in sports. Mutombo started with explaining the impact basketball has had on his life and that “if it was not for the game of basketball, I would not have been able to accomplish as much as I’ve done.” He talked about the importance of serving the community and leaving a legacy to help others regardless of the color of their skin or the language they speak. Due to scheduling constraints, Mutombo conducted the session from his car on the way to the airport, so the connection was a little choppy, making it difficult for participants to understand at points. After Motumbo left the call, Coach Zimmerman picked up the conversation and talked about his experience as a black basketball player at UCLA and in Europe. He explained how he has worked in the athletic sphere to emphasize the importance of understanding “our common differences,” concepts he has tried to integrate at AJA as well. This way, he said, athletes (or other participants) can work together no matter their race and learn from each other, creating a “common humanity.”
A third option open to all students and mandatory for the AP Government students, was a session with UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert, about the right to peacefully protest. Volokh gave a brief explanation of the amendment as a whole, and then moved on to the topic of freedom of speech. He explained why it is that the terms freedom of press and assembly have historically fallen under the broader term freedom of speech. He then focused on the right to protest. AP Government students then asked questions they had prepared beforehand about the First Amendment, a topic they had been learning about in class. This gave an opportunity for students to learn about more specific and nuanced topics, like flag burning or the First Amendment’s application to the recent events at the Capitol. Many students walked away from the session with a better understanding of the First Amendment. Freshman Zellik Silverberg explained that he thought Professor Volokh managed to cover the complex First Amendment in a “concise and informative” manner.
However, Junior Micah Feit Mann, an AP Government student, spoke for most of his class when he expressed frustration that the session included a wide age range, from fifth grade all the way up to seniors. “I found that the combination of grades made it challenging for the speaker to know the best way to phrase things and he often had to simplify what he had to say,” he said. This frustration partially stemmed from the questions that many younger students filled the chat with while Professor Volokh spoke.
The day concluded with a panel discussing “The History, Evolution, and Reclamation of the N-Word.” Dr. Leroy Zke Zimmerman, the father of Coach Zimmerman, spoke about his experience with the N-word word throughout his life, from growing up as a sharecropper to his career in the US military and his work as a public school principal. David Sneed, a lawyer, spoke of his own experience with the N-word growing up, and how he has to prepare his two teenage daughters to understand it and face it in the real world. With time running short, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson did not get to speak as much as planned. All three panelists emphasized that the N-word has no justifiable use because it carries with it well-earned connotations of racism and violence. The N-word was used when African-Americans, including some of the panelists, were attacked and mistreated. They described it as the ultimate American insult. They also explained that despite what some people may say, the N-word, because of its history, should not be used, no matter the situation.
In the concluding session, Rabbi Leubitz urged students and teachers to reflect on the speeches’ relevance to their lives. He left participants to consider how they can take action themselves, and how the community can affect change.