Should N.Y. Orthodox Students Hide Their Kippot on the Way to School?

After a Jewish couple was attacked by purported pro-Palestinian supporters, a controversy broke up when Manhattan's premier Orthodox school suggested students wear baseball caps when walking around the neighborhood.

Uriel Heilman
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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators display a Palestinian flag outside of New York City hall, New York July 14, 2014.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators display a Palestinian flag outside of New York City hall, New York July 14, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Uriel Heilman

JTA - When Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the principal of Ramaz, an Orthodox day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, first heard about last week’s attack in the neighborhood on a Jewish couple by a mob bearing Palestinian flags, he had an instinctual response. Maybe the male students at his school should consider wearing baseball caps over their yarmulkes when wandering around the neighborhood, he thought.

So he dashed off an email to his head of school, Paul Shaviv, suggesting parents might want to consider talking to their kids about it.

Then Lookstein thought again and realized he “absolutely did not agree with that policy” he had just suggested.

“I think that is giving the lunatics and terrorists a real victory,” Lookstein told JTA on Tuesday.

“We have to stand up here in New York and say we are who we are, and this kind of behavior by people who try to terrorize others should never be allowed,” he said. “I grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, when Yorkville (part of the Upper East Side) was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. And our answer to anti-Semitism has to be that we stand up like exclamation points and not bend over like question marks.”

But Lookstein never relayed his second thoughts to Shaviv.

So when Shaviv sent a letter about school security shortly afterward to students, parents and faculty, many were startled to find in it a suggestion about concealing kippot, which Shaviv attributed to Lookstein.

“The recent incident involving abuse and harassment of a couple in the neighborhood has aroused comment. This seems to have been — thankfully — an isolated incident,” the email said. “However, Rabbi Lookstein suggests that parents may consider advising their children to be discreet in wearing uncovered kippot, tzitzit, etc. It remains good advice not to walk around the streets displaying iPads or other ‘vulnerable’ items; not to text, or listen to music via ear buds while walking (distracting your attention from the surroundings), and under all circumstances being prudent and aware of personal space and personal safety.”

Contacted by JTA, Shaviv took pains to say the school wasn’t advocating that students conceal their kippot or tuck the ritual fringes of their tzitzit so much as merely passing along Lookstein’s suggestion.

“The school is not suggesting it. We’re passing on a suggestion,” Shaviv said in an interview, noting that he had no intention of concealing his own yarmulke. “All we’re saying is it is something that some parents may wish to discuss with their kids – no more, no less.”

He added, “Rabbi Lookstein has now reconsidered and may not want to suggest that after all.”

Now, Lookstein says, his view is clear.

“We don’t want this to become Paris,” Lookstein said. “It’s our job to educate the public and the leadership of this country that we cannot allow what’s going on in Paris and London and Brussels to happen here.”

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