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Looking back, ‘Hit a Jew Day’ target says silence is not the way

Read this story in St. Louis Jewish Light.

As a sixth-grader, Justin was on the bus to Parkway West Middle School when, out of nowhere, someone slapped him because he was Jewish. It was part of an unofficial school spirit week that started with “Hug a Friend Day,” moved to “High Five Day,” then “Hit a Tall Person Day” and, finally, on a Monday in October 2008, to “Hit a Jew Day.” At the time, about 35 of the 850 students at West Middle were Jewish.

Justin was slapped several more times that day. And while he wasn’t physically hurt — the hits were mostly slaps on his arm — he felt emotionally drained by the time he got home from school. “Hit a Jew Day” happened to fall on his 12th birthday.

“At first, I didn’t say anything,” said Justin, now 18, who asked that only his first name be used. “But then my mom began asking how my day was, since it was my birthday. I remember breaking down crying.”

Justin’s mother, Amy, called the school principal, who “asked if Justin got slapped because it was his birthday,” said Amy, who, out of respect for her son, asked that her last name not be used either. “I didn’t get anywhere with the administration.”

Eventually, she got in touch with the Anti-Defamation League, as did other parents whose Jewish children had been slapped.

“Hit a Jew Day” captured national and international headlines at the time. The school had an assembly to address bullying. Amy felt it was more of a band-aid than anything meaningful. The ADL met with school officials. Parents showed up in large numbers at the next school board meeting. Four or five students responsible for the day were disciplined.

Most agreed the incident was more of an immature prank and exercise in poor judgment than anything meant to be bigoted or anti-Semitic. But as Karen Aroesty notes, “Intent is one thing, but it can be messy and have an impact” even if the bigotry was not meant to be deliberate.

As regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri/Southern Illinois, Aroesty points out that when “Hit a Jew Day” took place seven years ago, “the conversation about how schools respond to incidents like this as well as bullying in general were a lot less sophisticated and a lot less public.”

By the same token, she adds, dealing with discrimination and bullying is an ongoing process.

“It’s not a matter of if we do everything ‘right,’ it will be fine,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way anymore.”

At the end of sixth grade, Amy encouraged Justin to transfer to another Parkway school with more Jewish students. He didn’t want to. The two would have similar conversations each year that followed, and the outcome would be the same. Justin wanted to stay put. After West Middle, he followed his class to Parkway West High School.

“I remember by freshman and sophomore years hearing the Jewish jokes,” Justin said. “Some were Holocaust jokes and were so bad I can’t even repeat them. One day at baseball my junior year, someone threw a quarter at me and asked, ‘Aren’t you going to pick it up?’ Even my friends would say, ‘I know you’re pretty cheap, aren’t you going to pick that up?’ It just went on and on.”

Justin told his friends he didn’t appreciate the Jewish jokes, but he says he didn’t retaliate or do anything confrontational. That just wasn’t his way then.

His breaking point came in April 2014, when three people were shot near Jewish organizations in suburban Kansas City. The suspect had said he went out that day to kill Jews.

“It kind of hit me I wasn’t in a safe community with my peers,” said Justin, who tweeted at that time: “I’m done with the anti-Semitism at my school. It’s not a joke, and I refuse to let people treat me how I’ve been treated for the past six years.”

Before his senior year last fall, Justin transferred to Parkway Central High School, which has a significantly larger Jewish student population than Parkway West High. He graduated from Parkway Central a week ago. He plans to attend Indiana University.

“I’m a little nervous given what goes on around anti-Israel and anti-Semitism on college campuses. But I know Indiana has a high percentage of Jewish teens, with a really big Hillel, some Jewish fraternities and sororities, so there are a lot of opportunities to connect with Judaism there,” said Justin, who became active in BBYO starting his sophomore year and has made a lot of Jewish friends through the teen organization.

Looking back, Justin realizes it was a mistake not to talk to an adult he trusted about what was going on.

“I just refused to talk about it with my parents, or school administrators, or even a teacher,” he said. “I was so nervous and intimidated about what might happen. I now realize that nothing is ever going to change unless you talk about it and bring it to someone’s attention.”