I still remember the film. It was black and white, but the people in it, only white. It stood in stark contrast to the shades of brown I encountered daily throughout my high school career in the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s, where the seeds for my vocation were sown.
Today, I'm the spiritual leader for an urban congregation in Baltimore. I live across the street from the shul in Reservoir Hill, in the city's central-west section, and work with my historic Jewish congregation to engage our largely black and non-Jewish neighbors. It seems a long way from my school days, but that film still haunts me, and I find myself thinking of it more and more in these tumultuous times.
It was a silent reel-to-reel movie of my high school's activities in the early '30s. Maine Township High School (as it was called in those days) in Park Ridge, Ill., still sports a beautiful 1929 red-brick art deco facade. Notable alumni include folk singer Steve Goodman (class of '65) and actor Harrison "Harry" Ford (class of '60), who broadcast basketball games from the booth of WMTH-FM in 1959. In my day, Maine Township was known as Maine East, and it had a reputation for its multiculturalism. There must have been over a dozen ethnic and national clubs: Polish Club, Korean Club, Indian Club, Filipino Club and so on.
The 1930's student population, though, was racially homogenous, and the film, which I watched during school one day, showed a group of students sitting around a classroom surrounded by images of swastikas and other symbols of the Third Reich. Shocked, I asked my teacher about this only to be told, "That was the German Club in those days. It was before the Holocaust."
The Anti-Defamation League reported last month incidents of anti-Semitism in America are higher now than they were then. I can think of only a handful of times in childhood someone made a derogatory comment because of my Jewishness: the kid in grade school who goaded me to pick up a penny; the Kindergartner who informed me, quite innocently, I was going to hell; the 10th-grade tennis teammate who served up an anti-Semitic comment, catching me so off-guard I lost my head and called him a name right back. I was so ill-trained in the art of racial insults, I called this Korean kid a Chinese slur.
Truthfully, the 1990s version of my high school was a safe place for a proud Jewish kid to thrive, an environment foreshadowing the majority-minority America today's nativists and white nationalists so greatly fear. I remember World Cultures Day, when we sampled foods and cheered folk dancing — not foreigners sporting alien costumes in a magazine or on television but my own classmates sharing their family traditions. I was taught to pleat a silk sari by an Indian friend's grandmother, and I debated the merits of our respective faiths with a devout Christian classmate whose family had emigrated from Thailand. Maine East was a place where race, religion, gender and nationality collided in the halls and classrooms propelling me one day to life and work here in Baltimore.
Each year, Martin Luther King's birthday is celebrated on the third Monday in January, which means every four years it shares the week with a presidential inauguration. As an Illinoisan, I was proud to see my senator become president of the United States and especially proud he would be America's first black president. President Obama never formally invoked King in his inaugural speeches, but King's legacy was woven into his words. And the symbolism of Mr. Obama speaking that auspicious week was lost on no one.
From his second inaugural speech: "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
This Jan. 20 will see the inauguration of a very different man who will be a very different president at a very different moment in history. At this instant there is elation among some, resignation among others and anxiety for many — particularly marginalized and minority communities. Thinking back to my high school years, I remember how formative it was, personally and professionally, to hail from a diverse community, a school that transcended in many ways the legacy of that 1930s German Club and became a bastion of racial and ethnic integration.
During the inauguration this year, I won't think of Harry Ford or Steve Goodman but of another former Maine East student who attended my alma mater when it was still all-white, from 1961 to 1964, before being redistricted to another school for her senior year
She was in Pep Club, chaired the Prom Committee, wrote for the school newspaper and went on to great success. She was also a Cubs fan, like me. Her name was Hillary Rodham. During those years, she went with her youth ministry to hear King speak — an experience that would strongly affect her life and political career, which she launched in high school. Hillary was student council vice president her junior year but subsequently lost for class president against male candidates. In a letter she once wrote: "one of my opponents told me I was really stupid if I thought a girl could be elected president."
That's something I hope to never hear from my now 11-year-old daughter.
Over the next four years, from my diverse Baltimore neighborhood, I'll wonder what might have been had the election results been different. But I won't despair. I know what America is capable of; it was ingrained in me years ago, in that once-segregated school that managed to overcome its past.
Daniel Cotzin Burg is rabbi at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. His email is RavDaniel@bethambaltimore.org.