February 19, 2022 — Alabama
This piece originally appeared in AL.com.
When I went to my 30-year reunion at Mountain Brook High School this past June, the pangs of nostalgia were inevitable. I had moved away once I went to college but frequently return to visit my family, most of whom are still there.
I have always felt pride in being part of the small but prominent Jewish community in Mountain Brook. It never felt disjointed to participate in Indian Guides while also going to Sunday school at Temple Emanu-El or having my non-Jewish classmates at my bar-mitzvah and my party at Pine Tree Country Club. I was invited to their country clubs on weekends. Even though I knew my family would never be able to join their club because we were Jewish, it never bothered me.
However, I also recalled being told by my ninth-grade classmates that I could not join their high school fraternity because I was Jewish. I was shocked given these were my closest friends. I was not the first Jewish person or the last to have this experience, one reason why we should not mourn the demise of high school fraternities and sororities.
I realized that despite loving my time in Mountain Brook, I had always known the undercurrents of antisemitism existed. My young mind downplayed their significance, which may have been a coping mechanism that allowed me to become student government vice president in my senior year and stay involved in high school activities.
Nonetheless, I never forgot being rejected based on my religion. It demonstrates how malleable young minds are – things that are patently bad can seem like not such a big deal. But we know that indelible marks are left on both the person who perpetrates that hurt and the person on the receiving end.
That is why trivializing the Holocaust is so dangerous – those are “lessons” imprinted into young minds and shape their entire world view. It is why I was disappointed when I heard students in a Mountain Brook High School class stood in front of an American flag and raised their right hands, in unison, outstretched with palms facing down — the classic Nazi salute. In an American history lesson no less. A Jewish student in the classroom, along with others, refused to do the salute. But when he publicized the incident, he was reprimanded for making the school “look bad.”
I believe there have long been many excellent teachers at Mountain Brook and not just because my mother was one of those teachers for almost 10 years. However, the use of Nazi salutes in class is utterly unacceptable, as was the reprimand. It is not just the students who need to learn some valuable lessons.
First, we must have the moral courage to speak up when we see or hear things that are not acceptable. The student in question, Ephraim Tytell, set a powerful example we should all be proud of. History has taught us that silence and indifference are never the answer.
Second, ignorance of the Holocaust threatens not just Jews but all of us. A survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, revealed that two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z polled didn’t know 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and half couldn’t name a concentration camp. We should focus on that, not salutes.
Third, this is an opportunity to learn and grow. As a result of ongoing dialogue with the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, the Mountain Brook schools will continue to work with the Alabama Holocaust Education Center to advance teacher training surrounding the Holocaust, antisemitism and its symbols. This is a vital mission given an American Jewish Committee survey last year that found one in four American Jews said they experienced some form of antisemitism and nearly four in 10 altered their behavior to hide the fact they were Jewish.
We all must try to appreciate diversity, build empathy, learn lessons from history and see our fates as linked together. I remain proud to say that I am from Mountain Brook and feel confident I will be able to still say that when I come back for my 40th high school reunion.
Brian Siegal, a native of Mountain Brook, is director of the American Jewish Committee office in Miami.