A Rosh Hashanah ritual calls out alleged public school failings in Philly
Rabbis led a ritual of atonement Sunday for how government has failed the Philadelphia schools.
There is no lake, sea, or stream outside the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia.
That wasn’t going to stop the performance of a Jewish purification ritual that usually calls for handfuls of breadcrumbs, representing sins or failings, to be cast into a body of water that carries them away.
A trio of rabbis led a Tashlich ceremony Sunday in front of the School District offices, marking the Jewish new year by calling out a litany of ways state and local government have failed city schoolchildren.
“Traditionally, Tashlich is a personal ritual,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah community as late afternoon shadows began to fall over North Broad Street. "You go to a body of water and symbolically cast out the ways you missed the mark during the past year.
“Anything you want to get rid of, you feel bad about, you toss into the water. In that way, it’s a symbolic way of starting the year without sins weighing you down.”
Holtzman’s group considers the under-funding of the Philadelphia schools a sin. “The way we fund our schools is racism at work,” she said before leading the gathering of about a dozen adults and children in prayer, punctuated by blasts sounded from a shofar.
There were no breadcrumbs; fistfuls of birdseed would serve. Without water, Holtzman had hoped pigeons might sweep in to eat the seed, to metaphorically remove the stain of racism and social injustice.
“Al chet she’chatanu lifatecha,” she intoned in Hebrew into a bullhorn. “For the wrong we have done before you...,”
Holtzman then asked forgiveness for the ways society has failed Philadelphia children; “for letting school funding depend on property taxes, so that those with more get more and those with less will always get less,” for one.
Then Holtzman and the group scattered the seed on the steps.
“Al chet she’chatanu lifatecha,” she repeated. “For allowing the whitest school districts to receive $2,200 more per student than the state’s own funding formula says they deserve — which means the districts serving the highest proportion of Black and brown students receive $2,200 less per student than the formula says they deserve.”
Rabbi Elliott batTzedek, her hair streaked blue and purple, removed the mask from her face. Then batTzedek raised the shofar and sounded a rhythmic blast of mournful tones from the horn.
“For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement,” Holtzman said.
Then she directed her attention to the shortcomings of the School District during the COVID-19 pandemic: a lack of enough computers and internet access for students; a back-to-school plan that distributed only one mask to each teacher; city policies that exempt wealthy institutions from property taxes “robbing our schools of desperately needed funds.” After each point, Holtzman scattered more sunflower seeds and millet.
BatTzedek blew the ram’s horn again, the blasts cutting through the roar of passing dirt bikes and motorcycles.
There were two more speakers. Barbara Dowdall, a retired Philadelphia schoolteacher, called for safe buildings, adequate numbers of nurses and counselors, funded arts programs, and fair funding. Rabbi Alissa Wise, a parent of children in the schools, asked those with control of the purse strings to invest where it’s needed most.
“The schools mirror our society and we should hold them, and ourselves, to a higher standard,” Wise said. She lambasted private fundraisers for public schools in wealthy neighborhoods as “unethical.”
After a little less than an hour, the small gathering dispersed.
The pigeons never arrived.