Families should mark MLK Day by teaching tolerance

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"Where did you buy these waffles?" my husband, Larry, asked.


"Look at this," he solemnly answered, unfolding a photocopied piece of hate mail, a virulent and rambling anti-Semitic, anti-Steven Spielberg diatribe that had been tucked inside the resealed box.

"Hate waffles," my four sons call them.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, this flier, which carries the address of a well-known white supremacist organization, is most likely the work of a lone lunatic in Southern California.

Nevertheless, this episode reiterates — as clearly as the brutal killing of gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, the vicious dragging death of African-American James Byrd in Texas and the availability of hundreds of hate sites on the Internet — that bigotry is alive and thriving in the United States.

Yes, hate flourishes, even more than 3,000 years after God commanded us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." More than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence affirmed that "all men are created equal." And more than 25 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream that "my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

On Monday, the nation marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the anniversary of his birthday.

Meanwhile, lawmakers work for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would expand existing federal legislation for hate crimes, currently defined as violent acts causing death or bodily injury "because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability" of the victim.

However, this seems like an exercise in futility, especially since all but 10 states have already enacted hate-crime laws. Besides, as my 15-year-old son, Zack, says: "You can't pass a law and just assume someone will stop hating blacks or Jews or gays."

I actually believe that combatting hatred begins at home. And for us Jewish parents, it begins, seemingly counterintuitively, with giving our children a solid and enthusiastic foundation in Judaism.

Children who are confident, clear and well-grounded in their religion are more accepting of people who are different. Unthreatened, they have no need to disparage others to elevate themselves.

Additionally, Judaism, which is founded on the concepts of human sanctity and dignity, condemns bigotry. Genesis 5 1:2 tells us, "When God created man, he made him in the image of God; male and female He created them." Because everyone possesses a divine spark, everyone deserves respect.

According to Jewish tradition, all people are descended from Adam and Eve, and thus no one person can claim racial superiority. In fact, God could have more expediently created thousands of people at once but deliberately chose this lengthier, but more egalitarian, line of descent.

We parents must also model Judaism's precepts of tolerance and respect, which is not always an easy task for those of us raised in the era of Polish jokes and Don Rickles humor.

In our house, this means no ethnic jokes, stereotyping, scapegoating, belittling or mocking of any person for any reason. In our house, this also means a ban on certain television shows whose offensive and disrespectful quips encourage mimicry.

"Remember when Mom and Dad used to let us watch `The Simpsons'?" my 7-year- old son, Danny, reminisces.

People are good or bad, moral or immoral, based on their individual actions and character and not based on their race, religion, sexual preferences or appearance. Thus, we can hate Saddam Hussein without hating all Iraqis.

As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the former chief rabbi of Palestine, said, "Hatred must be directed only towards the acts of evil and corrupt deeds in the world."

Lastly, we must give our children opportunities to know and understand others.

In the third grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, for example, my sons and their classmates form friendships with Native American children. In the fall, they begin as penpals. In the spring, the Heschel students travel to Chinle, Ariz., where they spend a full day with their penpals at the Chinle Primary School and travel through a local canyon.

The Navajo and Jewish third-graders compare and contrast latkes and fry bread, Hebrew and Navajo words. They sing, share stories and do crafts together. After this experience, the Native Americans are no longer a mere social studies unit; they are my sons' friends.

And last April, on the anniversary of King's death, my husband and I took our four sons to see Rosa Parks, who spoke at a family service at University Synagogue in Los Angeles. For my children, who have been raised in this city of celebrities, Parks stood out — a woman too tired to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man, a woman who unintentionally caused the 382-day boycott of the Montgomery, Ala., city buses, a woman who has been called "the mother of the civil rights movement."

"If we were really good people," my 11-year-old son, Gabe, muses, "the men would be like Martin Luther King Jr. and the women would be like Rosa Parks."

The United States is a nation of immigrants, most of us with a long and bitter history of persecution. We have come to this country ourselves, our parents, grandparents or ancestors — in search of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

We are not one grand multicultural melting pot. We are a nation of many proud races and religions, customs and creeds. And our goal is a free and tolerant society in which differences are respected and honored and where we can live and work together in harmony. This is what King, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, called "genuine brotherhood and peace."

"Don't people realize that we're all the same, that we're all made by God?" says my 9-year-old son, Jeremy. "In a way, we're all related."