Private school with Jewish history faces controversy

The Park School of Baltimore
The Park School of Baltimore (Max Lipitz).

Some in the Jewish community are upset after the Park School of Baltimore, a private school with Jewish history, received an open letter that many see as containing anti-Semitic language.

An Instagram account known as @blackatparkschoolbaltimore published on its page an open letter to Dan Paradis, head of school at the Park School of Baltimore, alleging a culture of anti-Blackness at the school and calling for swift and meaningful change. The majority of the letter, written by a group of self-identified Park School alumni referring to themselves as The Black at Park Organizing Collective, focuses on perceived biases against Black students and faculty at the Park School. However, one part of the letter called on the administration to examine “Park’s history: its inception, early exclusions, culture of whiteness and wealth hoarding, its tolerance of Zionism, and its parasitic relationship to Baltimore City.”

Paradis released a response to the collective’s letter on Aug. 18 that was shared with the school’s alumni and parents. In it, Paradis vowed that the school would do more to address racism. At the same time, Paradis challenged the group to reconsider its use of “language and imagery that is, in its own right, rooted in hatred. Specifically, I am referencing the use of pernicious anti-Semitic tropes that have been applied throughout history — and you now apply to Park’s history — including ‘wealth hoarding,’ ‘tolerance for Zionism,’ and ‘parasitic relationship.’”

Park School was founded in 1912 by a group of families dissatisfied by the bans or quota systems that existed at local private schools and restricted the number of Jewish students able to enroll at them. The school is a private, nonsectarian school with a current enrollment of 807 students. With classes ranging from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, 32% of their students, 24% of their faculty and 31% of their administrators identify as people of color. The school was unable to provide the number of Jewish students currently attending, as it does not ask families to identify their religious affiliation.

“Anti-Blackness is everywhere — it is a national crisis,” Paradis said to the JT. “And we know that Park — as a predominantly white institution throughout its history — and as a school that was, in fact, founded with the broader vision of inclusion — can and must take responsibility to actively become anti-racist in order to truly fulfill its mission.”

The allegations from The Black at Park Organizing Collective include Black students being required to participate in class simulations of the transatlantic slave trade, being publically humiliated, having the police called on them on campus, being accused of plagiarism without grounds and being touched without their consent.

The letter implored the administration to adopt a series of measures aimed at providing Park School students with an education that serves them.

The Black at Park Organizing Collective did not respond to the JT’s requests for comment.

In his response, Paradis took “responsibility for the fact that we have not acted swiftly enough, both in proactive and reactive ways to address racism and to promote a pro-Black culture at Park,” while noting the school is currently at work on an anti-racist action plan that includes several of the issues brought up by the collective.

The current version of this plan can be viewed on the school’s website. Included in the plan are calls for white racial literacy training for white employees, implicit bias training for security personnel, training for members of the school’s board of trustees and the creation of an anti-racist advisory board, made up of students, faculty, parents and alumni.

“We need to be in community with one another,” Paradis wrote in the letter. “I would ask you to consider the fact that we need everyone’s help in this effort — we cannot afford to exclude anyone. Anger and discomfort are part of this work. Hate is not.”

According to Josh Fidler, past president of Park School board of trustees, a parent of Park School alumni and member of Beth Israel Congregation, the Park School “is very open, reflective, and intentional,” stating that “[s]erious work was underway long before the letter.”

“I would frame the issue this way,” he said in an email. “(1) White privilege is real. We have multi-generational advantages that are simply not available to Black and brown people. Those advantages are generally unacknowledged. (2) The opposite of racism is not tolerance; (3) The antidote to privilege is not scapegoating other minorities; challenging systemic and institutional shortcomings should not use ad hominem or collectively loaded tropes; SO (4) We must all engage, individually and collectively, in exploring the contemporary expression of historical discrimination in order to establish a more (but likely not perfectly) just and equitable society.”

Another past board president, Betsy Berner, spoke on the board of trustees’ participation in a retreat focused on implicit bias, and on how both trustees and faculty have been discussing the book “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias,” by Dolly Chugh. She added that a future retreat in the fall would focus on Park becoming an anti-racist school.

“Like Park School, my dedication to ensuring that Black voices are heard and valued continues,” Berner said. “As we enter into the High Holiday season — filled with self-reflection — I hope that we all, as a community, can use this time to better not only ourselves but the lives of all of those around us.”

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