'The painful irony is Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom'

Vancouver school apologizes to students for banning Hanukkah

Sixth-grade girls Maya Sontz and Rebecca Weinberg spearhead — and win — fight for inclusivity in their Christmas-bedecked public school

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A Hanukkah menorah (Flash90)
A Hanukkah menorah (Flash90)

The Vancouver School Board has apologized to two Jewish 6th grade girls and their families after their principal prohibited them from bringing Hanukkah symbols into their public school — even though Christmas decorations already decked school halls.

Last week, Maya Sontz and Rebecca Weinberg and their parents turned to the media after the girls’ requests to set up a Hanukkah display alongside General Gordon Elementary‘s Christmas decorations were denied by the school’s administration. The principal, Hope Sterling, also refused to allow any Hanukkah songs to be sung in the school’s winter holidays concert.

“I have nothing against Christmas. I just think they should add more Hanukkah and more other religions,” 11-year-old Rebecca told CTV News.

General Gordon Elementary School in Vancouver, Canada (Michael Sayachack via wikicommons)

“It is a public school, so if you are going to invite everybody, you’ve got to include everybody,” said her classmate Maya.

Sterling’s reported rationale for excluding items like a Hanukkah menorah and candles was that such symbols were religious, while the Christmas tree in the school’s hallway was merely cultural.

Hanukkah Menorahs

“It was actually suggested that if we really were insistent, we could place a dreidel underneath the [Christmas] tree, or hang it off of the tree,” said a visibly upset Sheila Sontz, Maya’s mother.

Sontz told CTV that she viewed Christmas trees and Santa Claus as just as representative of a religious holiday as a menorah.

“There is a policy in the school that talks about being inclusive. It’s extremely upsetting,” said Sontz.

The Vancouver School Board’s original response to the Jewish families’ complaints only fueled the opposition to Sterling’s decision.

VSB associate superintendent Nancy Brennan supported Sterling, telling CTV that principals have the leeway to set policy for holiday decorations in their schools.

“I’m no expert in terms of cultural symbols and representations, so I wouldn’t want to be making those decisions at the district level for schools in terms of what is appropriate and not,” said Brennan.

A 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas Tree in Manger Square in Bethlehem, on November 31, 2015. (Sebi Berens/Flash90).

In response to a request for comment, the VSB issued a statement confirming support for multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion in its schools, but failing to address the specific complaint by the Jewish families at General Gordon Elementary.

The statement made mention only of a project at the school whereby students were asked to discuss with their families what is meaningful for them this time of year and draw a picture representing it.

“The school will be decorating the walls for the winter concert with art that depicts the children’s winter celebrations from all faiths and cultures,” said the statement.

Patti Bacchus (Facebook)

In a December 8 interview with CBC Radio, former VSB trustee and chairperson Patti Bacchus said she was shocked by what she called “a really poor judgement call” by the board.

Bacchus said she was extremely disappointed by what she characterized as “a very Eurocentric view of what Christmas is and what it stands for,” and for the board’s “doubling down” on its decision to leave holiday decoration decisions up to individual schools.

“There is a policy that commits the district to support an environment that respects, reflects and celebrates religious diversity,” Bacchus told CBC.

“It’s not a difficult thing to include a range of religions… It’s important for all students to learn that… It’s part of teaching in a diverse, multicultural setting in public schools where we want kids to understand that we live in a society with all kinds of religions and cultures, and those are to be celebrated and respected,” she said.

Bacchus also refuted Sterling’s claim that a Christmas tree is less religiously symbolic than a Hanukkah menorah.

“Common sense and an educated person would know that Christmas is a religious holiday. I don’t think it’s a fact to be disputed or be settled by school board policy,” Bacchus said.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, Vancouver. (Courtesy)

Rabbi Dan Moscovitz of Vancouver’s Temple Sholom was outraged to hear about the incident at General Gordon Elementary.

“The painful irony is that Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. The Maccabees fought to preserve that freedom and resist the tyranny of the majority that wanted to force their religious symbols and practices upon our people,” Moscovitz said.

The rabbi wondered whether the decision by the school principal was motivated by “willful bias against Jews and Judaism,” or “fundamental cultural ignorance.”

In either case, Moscovitz called for the school board to investigate the fitness of the administrator to hold a position of influence and authority over children.

In a December 10 statement issued to The Times of Israel, CIJA, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada, expressed pride in  6th graders Maya and Rebecca for taking their efforts public when they did not find redress in-school.

According to CIJA Pacific region director Nico Slobinsky, the organization had been in touch with VSB and British Columbia provincial government officials about resolving the matter.

CIJA found the school board’s initial response confirming  that “specific multiculturalism, anti-racism and non-discrimination policies [are] in place” unsatisfactory.

“Policies are meaningless if they are not implemented. We continue to work with officials to seek a resolution. We are hopeful this can be achieved within the next few days,” Slobinsky said.

The media coverage and outcry from CIJA and others had an impact. On December 10, Vancouver Board of Education chair Janet Fraser formally and publicly apologized to Maya and Rebecca.

“The VBE sincerely regrets any practices at General Gordon Elementary that have negatively impacted a sense of inclusion and representation for students and parents within our school community. As chairperson, I apologize on behalf of the board to the students and their families who did not feel welcomed and included at their school. We acknowledge that in the interpretation and implementation of our policies, there has been confusion about what is permitted as part of upcoming winter celebrations, including Hanukkah,” Fraser wrote.

Fraser and the school district staff promised to meet with members of the Jewish families Monday “to ensure that their children, as well as all others, are included and represented in their school.”

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