Md. student asked to defend wearing head-covering

NEW YORK (JTA) — A Jewish student at a Maryland high school was asked to prove that he wore a head covering for religious reasons.

Caleb Tanenbaum, 17, was asked by the administration of Northwood High School in Silver Spring to provide a letter from a rabbi explaining that he was wearing his Rastafarian-style head covering for Jewish religious reasons. A school rule forbids all headwear, with the exception of students who verify that their headwear is religious in nature. Other students also have been asked for verification.

The school’s principal, Henry Johnson, said Tanenbaum was asked to provide verification because he only recently began wearing the head covering and it did not appear to be a kippah.

"This is the first time that I’ve ever had to question any type of religious headwear by a Jewish student," Johnson told JTA. "Although we know he’s Jewish, we’ve never seen him with any type of Jewish headwear in the three years he’s been here. He has dreadlocks, and he had headwear on that covered his entire head.

"The reason that I questioned this is because I was dealing at the same time with another student claiming he’s Rastafarian, and both have on the same type of headwear. I didn’t recognize that type of headwear. It was not a yarmulke or a kippah."

The student’s father, Steve Tanenbaum, told a local newspaper, the Wheaton Patch, that his son was threatened with suspension, but Johnson said that wasn’t true. Tanenbaum reportedly complained to the school district, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union about the incident and demanded an apology.

Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, the director of Aish DC, wrote a letter to the school that said, according to Patch, "I ask you, in the spirit of religious acceptance, to allow him to wear his kippah in the school.”

After the Patch report appeared, Jewish community members rallied to the principal’s defense, saying he has a stellar track record accommodating Jewish students. The school is located in a heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Kemp Mill, and about 15-20 kippah-wearing students attend the 1,500-student high school.

"Because I have to be sensitive to our students, we plan schedules around their religion, we prepare kosher meals for our students for special occasions, like an honor roll pizza party, and we also make sure there are kosher meals for our teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week," Johnson told JTA.

Johnson said the rule requiring students to verify that their headgear is religious is a necessity.

"I have kids who come in every day and claim that they’re this or that," Johnson said. "The only headwear that is allowed is for religious purposes. But there are always students who will try to get around the system."

(The original version of this article was corrected on Feb. 6, 2012.)

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