Thanks to local teen Ariel Troy, the Greater Washington Jewish community will be one of three pilot regions for expanding the Student to Student program, an innovative initiative to reverse prejudice and reduce stereotypes. Created by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of St. Louis, the program aims to combat bigotry and hate by putting a “human face” to Judaism.
Troy, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis and an alumna of the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, approached JCRC of Greater Washington about bringing the Student to Student program from her new community back to her hometown. “This program has helped me appreciate the power of dialogue,” she said. “Almost anything can be accomplished if different people keep talking to each other patiently.”
Since 1992, groups of three to four St. Louis-area Jewish high school students — representing the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches of Judaism — have gone to St. Louis-area high schools to have an informal, peer-to-peer conversations about Jews and Judaism as part of the Student to Student initiative. In the 2015-2016 school year, 122 Jewish students spoke to a total of approximately 4,000 students.
Student to Student diverges from the traditional educational model, which relies on adult subject matter experts addressing students, but that is part of why JCRC of Greater Washington has high hopes for this program. “Students respond better to peers — especially peers who know what they’re talking about — as far as personal experiences,” said Steve Adleberg, director of educational outreach.
A $15,000 grant from Natan — a giving circle in which members pool their charitable contributions and collectively award grants to innovative Jewish community initiatives — enabled JCRC of St. Louis to expand the program to additional regions, including the Greater Washington Jewish community, in the coming year.
While this pilot program focuses on empowering students to effect positive change within the school system, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offers a program to help students respond to anti-Semitic incidents when they occur. Words to Action, a customizable, interactive program for students in middle school through college, teaches students how to identify anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias, address the myths behind anti-Semitic stereotypes, and to respond to different incidents, from hate speech to vandalism.
JCRC of Greater Washington’s long-
running Parents Primer series gives parents a similar opportunity. The program gives parents the tools they need to address and respond to the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents in local schools.
Equipping Parents to Respond to Incidents
Parents Primer sessions provide parents with tools and resources to navigate challenges such as religious expression in public schools, bullying, and anti-Semitism in area schools. The goal of this program is to “empower parents and provide a space for parents to interact directly with representatives from the school system,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of JCRC of Greater Washington.
The Parents Primer program is not new, but it has become increasingly relevant in the post-Charlottesville environment. ADL recently audited anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S.; the results were released last month. The report showed a 67 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents nationally in the first nine months of 2017, compared to the same time period in 2016. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools nationally increased by 107 percent. [See sidebar for resources on reading and understanding these data.]
In past years, most Parents Primer sessions were held in northern Virginia. However, Adleberg said JCRC saw a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Montgomery County schools during the 2016-2017 school year; hence, a rising demand for these sessions in Maryland.
At the Parents Primer in Rockville on Nov. 9, which focused on “responding to anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and xenophobia in our schools,” a panel of experts presented strategies and tactics for responding to incidents in local schools. Scott Kreeger, panel member and Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) social worker, spoke about how an increase in bias incidents and anti-Semitism manifests as higher rates of clinical anxiety among children. Representatives from Montgomery County Public Schools, JCRC of Greater Washington, JSSA, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington highlighted the resources and programs they offer to help students and parents cope with anti-Semitic incidents.
After the presentation, parents had the chance to speak with the principal of a local middle school, where swastikas were found carved into a desk the previous week. Franklin Siegel said this interaction was “the most important takeaway” from the event.
Roughly 25 people attended the Nov. 9 primer. “There are pluses and minuses to a large group,” Adleberg said. “We were able to have a lot more give and take ... People there got a lot out of it, asked good questions, and had good interactions.”
See Something, Say Something
As the Jewish community grapples with how to address the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents locally and nationally, law enforcement agencies and Jewish communal organizations agree: Reporting and tracking incidents is key. “The community can assist by sharing information about hate crime reporting and supporting positive police-community relations,” a DC Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson said.
Unfortunately, the onus of collecting comprehensive data on anti-Semitic incidents rests on the victims of these incidents, since organizations can only track reported incidents. “Members of the public and minority groups need to know that even if an incident is not criminal in nature, it is still worth reporting to watchdog groups like the ADL. For their part, watchdog groups need to do outreach to the public and make it easy to report incidents,” said Doron Ezickson, Washington, D.C., regional director of ADL.
Jewish organizations stressed that their work goes far beyond collecting data; they are available to support community members in navigating these incidents. “You are not alone. We are here to support you,” Franklin Siegel said.
By Malka Goldberg