Op-ed | A unified front: NYC public schools’ courageous stand against hatred

Schools Chancellor Banks addresses antisemitism
Schools Chancellor David Banks, shown at a November 2023 press conference in Queens, rolled out a plan on Jan. 22, 2024 for the city’s public schools to combat antisemitism.
File photo/Iryna Shkurhan

As a Jewish leader in New York City, I have borne witness to the unique challenges our community faces amidst global tensions that often seep into our local lives. It is within this challenging environment that the New York City Public School System (NYCPS), under the leadership of Chancellor David C. Banks, has stood as a principled light against the waves of antisemitism and all forms of hate. 

New York City is home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. For us, antisemitism is not merely an issue in the news or a historical relic; it is an urgent crisis that affects the lives of our students and families across the city, and we’ve seen an increase of more than 200 percent in reported hate crimes against our community since October 7th. Our schools should be sanctuaries of learning and development, not arenas of fear and intimidation. Recognizing this, Chancellor Banks and his team have shown tremendous empathy, understanding, and leadership as they take decisive actions to foster an educational environment where every student can thrive, free from discrimination.  

Since Hamas’s vicious terror attack, the response from NYCPS has been both swift and sensitive. Chancellor Banks has not only recognized the gravity of the situation and the impact on our students but has spearheaded initiatives to give our students opportunities to grieve while creating space for unity work and mutual understanding among affected communities.  

Under Chancellor Banks’ leadership, NYCPS has rolled out the “Meeting the Moment” plan, a comprehensive strategy aimed at combating hate through education, safety measures, and engagement. This initiative is a testament to the proactive and inclusive approach required in such tumultuous times. It is not just about immediate responses, but about embedding long-term resilience and understanding among our youth, especially at a very important time when their brains and values are developing.  

For centuries, Jewish leaders have had to navigate these difficult conversations on our own. It is tremendously meaningful to have such a strong ally and partner in healing in NYCPS. Chancellor Banks and his team have made their commitment to open dialogue clear and have made themselves available to hear directly from students, staff, and community leaders, and swiftly respond to issues as they arise.  

Our public schools serve students who come from homes with a wide range of beliefs and our schools are often the first places they encounter beliefs and opinions that differ from their own. With nearly one million students, NYCPS has an obligation to create teachable moments from these challenging moments in history and they have met this obligation head on and with grace. By incorporating discussions about antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry into the classroom, NYCPS has taken a commendable systemwide approach to empowering students with the knowledge and empathy needed to confront and counteract these ideologies — an extremely difficult task that NYCPS educators are doing every day.  

We, as faith leaders, must also play our part. Chancellor Banks convened an Inter-Faith Advisory Council, on which I sit, and this diverse group of faith leaders stands ready to support NYCPS by offering our insights, participating in dialogue sessions, and helping to foster an atmosphere of inclusivity and respect. Our pledge is not merely in words but in continuous, active engagement with the school system and its leadership. 

As we move forward, it remains critical that we maintain the momentum and continue to build on the foundations laid by these initiatives. The battle against antisemitism and all forms of hate requires constant vigilance and renewal of our commitments to justice and mutual respect. 

Our public schools are powerful reminders of what Americans can do when we set aside our differences. Every day in New York City, over a million students and staff come together to learn, play, and grow, while quickly addressing any incidents of bias or hate. That is a miracle. The daily actions of NYCPS educators and leaders serve as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved when communities and leaders can come together. 

Together, we are not just reacting to crises; we are building the foundation for a more just and empathetic world. This is the power of education, and this is the promise of New York City Public Schools under the leadership of Chancellor Banks. Let us continue to support this vital work, ensuring that our schools remain havens of learning and beacons of hope in our richly diverse city. 

Rabbi Bob Kaplan is the founding Executive Director of the Center for Shared Society, the community building division of JCRC-NY.