School condemns hate incidents

Gilman students, staff united in rejecting anti-Semitic letter

April 16, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Jewish teacher at one of Baltimore's most elite preparatory schools found a hate letter in his mailbox and a slur scratched on his department's door this week -- incidents to which students responded with rapid condemnation at a special assembly.

Michael R. Himelfarb, who teaches English and heads the drama department at Gilman School in Roland Park, said he is sickened by the anti-Semitic note he received Monday, but heartened by the response from students and faculty of his alma mater.

The note, Himelfarb said, told him to leave his teaching job -- one he has held for a year, since graduating from Princeton University in 1998.

At the assembly of Gilman's 430 upper-school students Tuesday, John Schmick, head of the upper school, read the note aloud. Then Himelfarb, 22, spoke for several minutes.

After a period of silence, Himelfarb said, students began to speak out. At the invitation of one student, the Jewish students raised their hands in a show of solidarity.

"They were immediately just outraged and had such contempt for whoever had done this," Himelfarb said. "It was amazing, because it was Jewish students and black students and Christian students and theater people and jocks and academics all saying the same thing -- that we do not tolerate this at this school."

Archibald R. Montgomery IV, headmaster of the boys school, said one student stood and asked those who condemned what had happened to Himelfarb to applaud. What followed, he said, was dramatic.

"They got up and applauded for an extended period of time," Montgomery said. "It was loud and resounding. After that, a string of boys, across every socioeconomic, racial group you can imagine, stood up and spoke from the heart. They expressed a combination of anger and sadness. I don't think I'd ever been prouder of our Gilman boys than at that moment."

This week's incident was not the first at Gilman involving prejudice this school year. Another assembly was held in the fall after two boys allegedly exchanged racial epithets.

"From time to time, and in isolated ways, such things have happened," as they have at other schools, Montgomery acknowledged. "We try to deal with them as they come up. There are people uncomfortable with the ideals of our community."

Himelfarb and several parents and students interviewed said they did not think the incidents mean Gilman has a problem with intolerance.

"This does not represent Gilman," said Jeffrey Abraham, a senior who is president of the school's Jewish Students' Association. "It reflects on a few people or an individual that has some problems."

Ryan Boyle, a junior who plays on the lacrosse team, said students planned to continue their discussion of the incident at an open forum today. "Everyone was just so disgusted," he said. "Through all the bad that this brought, it all seemed to bring us together, to embrace each other."

Said his mother, Suzanne Boyle: "Gilman is the most diverse place my child is probably going to be in his whole life."

Gilman, which opened in 1897 as the Country School for Boys, was known for years as a preppie bastion for white, non-Jewish males. But the school made a concerted effort to diversify, beginning in the mid-1950s.

On the occasion of the school's centennial anniversary, Gilman's first Jewish student, George B. Hess Jr., a 1955 graduate and a member of the family that owns Hess Shoes, said he had helped break new ground in "what is now a true community school."

Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, said it was as a chaplain at Gilman during the 1980s that he first was introduced to Baltimore's Jewish community and became interested in its relations with the Christian community.

"The school can rightly take pride in leading the way in opening the doors to the Jewish community," Leighton said.

Montgomery said the school doesn't keep statistics on how many Jewish students it has, but he estimated that they make up about a quarter of the student body.

Montgomery said that while the school acted swiftly to condemn the note, he is not actively trying to find out who wrote it because he has no leads. "One of the worst things that can happen is a witch hunt," he said.

For his part, Himelfarb said he has no intention of missing a beat at the school he calls "home" -- already turning his attention back to directing the spring production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

"I just love it here," Himelfarb said. "I don't think the event represents Gilman School."

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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