When Rabbi Larry Sernovitz heard someone drew swastikas and the words “Hail Hitler” on a bathroom wall at Pope High School Thursday, he didn’t hesitate. He spent several hours Friday at the school talking with the principal and students about what happened.
“This is an attack on humanity, and it is important to understand that,” said Sernovitz, a Cobb parent and senior rabbi at Temple Kol Emeth in east Cobb, in a phone interview after he and principal Tom Flugum addressed students briefly in four lunch periods.
“Any antisemitism and acts of hatred are an attack on the whole school community. When acts like this occur and we allow silence, then the whole student body is indicted,” said Sernovitz. “As Elie Wiesel said, ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’”
The incident occurred in the midst of the high Jewish holidays and a week before Yom Kippur, known as the day of atonement. Sernovitz said Yom Kippur’s message “that we can always change and we can always do better” applies to Cobb Schools.
“There is a bigger conversation we need to have within Cobb County and in the rest of our country wrestling with the demons of those who believe we shouldn’t stand up for the minority community and for those who have been persecuted,” said Sernovitz. “United we stand, divided we fall. I look to Cobb Schools and the superintendent to do the right thing.”
“Anytime students misbehave, and, in this case, disrespect individual students, people, groups, and their school, we find it unacceptable. The principal has engaged with community groups who have been affected by this student behavior, and all applicable district policy and law will be applied,” said a Cobb Schools spokeswoman in response to a request for a statement.
A letter sent home Friday to Pope parents failed to mention swastikas or antisemitism, saying instead, “Several students have defaced our beautiful school with hateful graffiti and also damaged our facilities ... Disturbing acts like what occurred this week have no place in our district or at our school and will not be tolerated.”
Sernovitz understands the district wants to avoid upsetting parents who don’t want a negative light cast on the school or its students and maintain their child wasn’t involved and thus does not need to be part of any follow-up.
“Yes, we have a school with wonderful students, and that is why when things like this happen, where students of the high school have perpetrated acts of hate and vandalism, we need to double down on their education,” he said. “We need to say to the student majority who didn’t do this that you need to be allies. You need to be advocates. It is great that parents have a wonderful child — we applaud those amazing kids — but we need to teach our kids to teach other kids that these kinds of acts are wrong.”
A parent alarmed over the antisemitism hoped to go to the next school board meeting, but then discovered it was Thursday during Yom Kippur. “This evening I went to see when the next school board meeting is scheduled in order to make public comments regarding this incident only to find out it’s next week on Yom Kippur! Talk about insult to injury,” said the parent.