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Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event

News of the Diocese

February 21, 2024

Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event
Catholic school principals ‘unpack antisemitism’ at Maltz Museum event

About 70 elementary Catholic school principals from the Diocese of Cleveland spent the day on Feb. 21 learning how to make their schools more welcoming communities.

Frank O’Linn, superintendent of diocesan schools, said in the past, Catholic schools consisted primarily of Catholic students and teachers. However, that is no longer the case.

“We must focus on an increasingly diverse Church,” he said to the group that gathered at the Maltz Museum in Beachwood. The museum’s mission is “to build bridges of tolerance and understanding by sharing Jewish heritage through the lens of American experience.”

Father Joseph Hilinski, longtime diocesan delegate for ecumenical and interfaith affairs and pastor of St. Barbara Parish in Cleveland, guided participants through a series of Jewish morning prayers to begin the program. He offered a brief explanation of the prayers many Jews pray in the morning, late afternoon and at night.

(See photo gallery above.)

O’Linn told the group that in recent years, Catholic schools across the diocese have welcomed students from a variety of faiths, nationalities and cultures. “They should leave us better in their faith,” he said. “We are here today to be exposed to some new things. We are all children of the same God, Christians asked live with and have good relationships with others. “

He said that includes celebrating and understanding our differences, loving God and loving one another. O’Linn introduced Lee C. Shapiro, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Cleveland.

The AJC is the global advocacy organization for the Jewish people. It has a network of offices, institutes and international partnerships throughout the world, including 25 offices in the United States. One of the organization’s main objectives is to counter antisemitism, which Shapiro addressed in her presentation.

She recalled recent antisemitic incidents involving student athletes at a couple of Catholic high schools and how the schools, diocese and Jewish community worked together to educate, address the problem and provide a greater understanding of the Jewish community.

Although Jews represent only about 2% of the United States population, 60% of hate crimes involve Jews, Shapiro said. In addition, 63% of American Jews said they feel less secure now than they did a year ago. In fact, there has been a 360% increase in antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks in Israel.

Shapiro explained that Judaism is a religion, but not all Jews are religious. “Jews are multinational, multiracial, multi-ethnic,” she said, adding they are a people who originate from the land of Israel. Over the years, through a series of expulsions, they landed in countries around the world. Currently, there are about 15.7 million Jews worldwide, Shapiro said, noting that number still has not reached the approximately 16.5 million Jews who lived worldwide before the Holocaust.

The Jewish community is diverse, Shapiro said, with some in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Spanish-speaking countries. “Others are converts, Jewish by choice,” she added.

Antisemitism dates to ancient times, Shapiro said, not it evolved over time with Jews being accused of being both superior and inferior. Certain perceptions of Jews may be expressed as hatred toward Jews, she said, and conspiracy theories have blamed Jews for tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks in New York City and the COVID-19 pandemic.

She blames the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on ignorance of the problem, an increased emphasis on race and national identity, rising economic uncertainty, the fading legacy of the Holocaust and other things like the internet and social media.

Locally, Shapiro said the AJC has worked with leaders in the Catholic community, including Bishop Edward Malesic and Father Hilinski – whom she considers friend – to forge a good alliance with the Jewish community.

Nationally, last year the White House unveiled a national strategy to counter antisemitism. She said the AJC provided input for the plan and continues to help with implementation. Shapiro said the AJC’s call to action against antisemitism includes recognition of the problem, response and prevention.

A group of parent witnesses also spoke about their experiences in Catholic schools. Ed Vittardi, principal of St. Albert the Great School in North Royalton, presented a Lebanese family who discussed immigrating and how the SATG community embraced them and others in the school.

Sarah, the mother, talked about the kindness shown to her children and how the school community was eager to learn about their traditions.

Danielle Blansette, principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Cleveland, said OLMC is becoming a mainly Hispanic school. She introduced Theresa, who spoke about her family’s experience and how the school welcomed them.

Steffany Congelio, principal of Incarnate Word Academy in Parma Heights, said the IWA community has a great deal of cultural diversity, explaining they have students who speak 19 different languages, who come from four continents and 26 different countries.

A Hindu family who emigrated from India in 2015 shared their experiences at IWA, noting they had attended Catholic schools and found the same discipline, values and educational focus at IWA, which was described as “amazingly amazing and very inclusive.”

Tali Collins, a Jewish woman and lifelong Clevelander, is academic dean of St. Thomas Aquinas School, one of the Partnership Schools in Cleveland. The local network includes Metro Catholic, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke schools, all inner-city Catholic schools in Cleveland.

She introduced Ricardo and Jeff, two dads from St. Thomas Aquinas, who are active with the school’s STAnd Together group of Black fathers and father figures.

Ricardo is a single parent raising twin daughters, which he said can be challenging but is very rewarding. He is involved with his daughters at St. Thomas Aquinas, which he said is more than a school. “It’s a family. It’s a blessing.” He credits the school’s women leaders, who he calls the “four mothers,” for much of its success.

“I’m there every day and do whatever is needed,” he said, describing his role with the STAnd Together club.

Jeff, who is stepfather to two students at the school, said his wife chose St. Thomas Aquinas for her daughters “and I’m glad she did.” He was asked to be part of the dads club and jumped at the chance. “We’re there. We’re a presence,” he said, adding there are benefits, including the many hugs he receives from students.

He grew up in the neighborhood and said he brings his “street smarts” to his role as a parent and volunteer. New programs have begun at St. Thomas Aquinas including movie nights and barbecue to help strengthen the school community.

“God put that Jewish girl (Collins) in that school and that neighborhood for a reason,” Jeff said, calling the school “a miracle.”

Maureen Covington, principal of St. Dominic School in Shaker Heights, and Liz Woconish, director of religious education for the parish and school, discussed how St. Dominic has worked to intentionally create a school that celebrates differences.

Covington said the 204 students at St. Dominic are 68% Catholic, 49% white and 51% Black, Hispanic, Asian or multi-racial, making it one of the more diverse schools in the diocese. “All are welcome is our parish motto,” she said, and they decided to ensure that was true.

Woconish said they have been working on combatting unconscious bias with the parish and school collaborating. “Father Tom Fanta, our pastor, spoke about racism from the pulpit and said it is a sin,” she said.

The parish had an event in 2020 to address and combat racism just as the pandemic hit. They continued working on the issue by sharing information electronically.

“We felt like there was a conversion happening,” she said, and both the parish and school continue to keep the momentum going. They had an outdoor Mass with parishioners dressed in native attire with various languages used at the liturgy, they had banners featuring Blacks on the path to sainthood and hosted programs including a speaker Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

Woconish said their efforts are having an impact. “We have heard from people who said they feel seen and heard.”

The principals also had table discussions and lunch before viewing the Maltz Museum’s current special exhibit, “The Girl in the Diary.” It focuses on the diary of Rywka Lipszyc, a 14-year-old Jewish girl who lived in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland from October 1943 to April 1944, when she was sent to a concentration camp. Although she survived the war, no one has been able to trace her whereabouts after she was liberated and sent to a hospital.

The exhibit continues through April 28.

O’Linn said the principals meet regularly to discuss and address topics of interest to the schools.

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