Jewish Students at Northwood Support Principal Despite Kippah Controversy
Although students do not all agree with the Northwood High School administration's decision to request a letter from a rabbi in the case of Caleb Tanenbaum, they still see their school as a place of religious tolerance and acceptance.
When school administration told Caleb Tanenbaum's parents that their son needed a letter from a rabbi in order to wear an unconventional kippah to Northwood High School, his father said he felt "singled out in a discriminatory manner."
But other Jewish students at Northwood High School have defended the administration's treatment of the school's Jewish population.
While eating kosher pizza during a Feb. 8 meeting of the Northwood Jewish Culture Club, about 15 Jewish students discussed what happened at the school and how the community has reacted. Northwood recently changed its headwear policy so that a letter from a spiritual leader will no longer be required.
Sarah McNally, who was in Caleb’s class when a security guard told him to remove his hat, said she is concerned about the community’s reaction and about the charges of anti-Semitism.
“We want them to know that this is a place where religion is tolerated,” McNally said.
Assistant Principal Linda Wolf noted that Northwood has the highest rate of Jewish student transfers from private Jewish schools in the MCPS system. Approximately half of the students in the room said they came to Northwood from a local Jewish private school, Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, in Aspen Hill.
Abraham Shalom, the club’s president, said he’s worried that the local Jewish community will no longer see Northwood as a good option to a private Jewish school.
“A lot of them are getting scared now,” Shalom said.
Although the students in the club expressed different opinions about who should be able to claim that headwear is a mark of religious identification--the particular student, the parents or the spiritual leader--they were unified in saying that the administration has been extraordinarily accommodating to the needs of the school’s Jewish students.
Shalom, who wears a yarmulke, said that his older brother was able to graduate early, with Principal Henry Johnson's support, so that he could go to Israel. When his mother complained to the school that they could not eat the non-kosher pizza at classroom parties, Johnson responded by providing kosher pizza.
“He’s always been as understanding as he possibly can,” Shalom said.
Renee Wasco related how when she first transferred to Northwood from a Jewish private school, other students called her names because she was Jewish, but that once the administration found out, they put a stop to the bullying.
Northwood Jewish students seem very comfortable with their religious identity compared to MCPS students elsewhere in the county, according to Rabbi Nissim Levin, of NCSY, a Jewish organization that promotes youth social activities. The Jewish culture club at Northwood is student-initiated with a teacher sponsor, who was not present for the meeting, but Rabbi Levin brings the pizza and often leads a discussion.
The students in the club all agreed that “CJ,” as many of them call Caleb, wears an unconventional Israeli-style kippah. Multiple students characterized the hat as “Rastafarian,” and said that it looked “more like a beanie than a kippah.”
Steven Tanenbaum had initially described Caleb’s kippah as an off-white color, but he has since corrected this statement in an email to Patch: “Caleb was wearing a different kippa than I had originally thought. He was wearing a black colored, hat-like knitted kippa."
George Townsend, a non-Jewish student but a member of the club, said that he thinks that the fact that Caleb said the head covering was religious should have been enough.
“I don’t think the parents should have been notified,” he said. “They should have left it at his word.”
Other students thought that the principal was right to call the parents, but not to request the letter from the rabbi. “They should have just listened to the parents,” said Thea Ornstein.
Recent graduates also have expressed support for the principal.
Brian Horowitz, a 2008 Northwood graduate and a former member of Isiah Leggett's Youth Commission, wrote the following in an email to Johnson earlier this month:
"I have spoken to many of the other Orthodox Jewish students of NHS and we feel that you have always treated us with respect and have let us practice our religion freely...You certainly made us feel welcome and safe while attending NHS."