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Vancouver School Board responds to Chanukah controversy

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General Gordon Elementary school in Vancouver. ARNOLD C PHOTO

“It is called a public school,” Maya Sontz told CTV News, “so if you’re going to invite everybody, you’ve sort of got to include everybody.”

Sontz, 11, was speaking about why she and her friend Rebecca Weinberg thought Chanukah decorations should be put up in their Vancouver school, General Gordon Elementary, along with the usual Christmas decorations.

“Be kind, be safe, be fair,” reads General Gordon’s motto, but the school’s refusal to put up Chanukah decorations did not feel kind or fair to Sontz and Weinstein.

“I don’t feel like everybody is being recognized in the way that they should be,” Sontz said.

General Gordon has trees, wreaths and other Christmas paraphernalia up throughout the school, but nothing to recognize the traditions of its Jewish students.

The school’s principal, Hope Sterling, said holiday celebrations taking place at the General Gordon are non-religious: songs at the Christmas concert will be about reindeer and Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree, she argued, is not a religious symbol, but a cultural one.

READ: CHANUKAH GREETINGS

On Dec. 8, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) released a statement, after member’s of the city’s Jewish community expressed their concerns.

The statement affirmed the VSB’s commitment to multi-cultural inclusion and pointed out that students at General Gordon would be making artwork depicting what they consider to be important holiday symbols, which will be hung in the hallways.

“There has been an unfortunate misunderstanding regarding the situation at Gordon Elementary,” said Vancouver School Board Chair Janet Fraser in the statement.

“Our schools honour and recognize diverse cultural holidays and celebrations. We are proud to have wonderfully diverse communities in our schools and that creates tremendous opportunities for our students to learn about other students’ backgrounds and cultures.”

On Dec. 10, the VSB released a follow-up statement, saying that it “has specific multiculturalism, anti-racism and non-discrimination policies in place. We are committed to these policies and expect all VSB schools, including General Gordon Elementary, will implement these policies through practices that are consistent with the intent and direction of these policies.”

The statement said one of the policies is to “develop and support an environment that affirms, respects, reflects and celebrates the racial, ethno-cultural and religious diversity of our society.” It also included an apology for actions that have “negatively impacted a sense of inclusion and representation for students and parents within our school community.”

Fraser said in the statement that as a result of the confusion about what is permitted during the holiday season, the board chair and school district staff will meet with the affected families to address their concerns.

“I have nothing against Christmas. I just think they should add more Chanukah and other religions,” Weinberg told CTV News. “I would really like to feel represented.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in a Facebook post that upon learning about the controversy, it contacted the school board and provincial government officials “to clarify their positions and express our concerns.… Policies are meaningless if they are not implemented. We continue to work with officials to seek a resolution. We are hopeful this can be achieved within the next few days.”