When Ron Halber first read that third graders at Watkins Elementary School in the District were instructed to act out graphic and disturbing scenes from the Holocaust at the behest of a school librarian, his reaction “was not cerebral but gastro-intestinal,” he said.
“It was so nauseating and so horrific to think about,” said Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “Not only was everybody disgusted, but we were really concerned about the trauma that these children, both Jewish and non-Jewish children, had to endure.”
Halber and other JCRC staff joined a Zoom call on Dec. 20 with the school chancellor and other senior officials from the D.C. public school system along with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. “I was very pleased that the chancellor was very apologetic,” said Halber. “You [could] see, not just from his words but from his body language, he was furious that this happened.”
In addition to the genuine apology and remorse, there was also an explicit desire to take advantage of resources available to appropriately respond to the incident and its aftermath.
In the coming months, the JCRC plans not only to continue to provide support services for parents and children but also work with the school system on reforming background checks and on changes to the way Israel, Judaism and the Holocaust are discussed in the classroom, the latter recommended before this particular incident.
The JCRC advocates on behalf of the Jewish community and seeks to strengthen bonds with allies outside the Jewish community. The interaction in the Zoom meeting and discussions to follow were just one example of the JCRC‘s work in 2021.
Equitable treatment in public schools: The fight isn’t over
In addition to its focus on antisemitism, the JCRC is involved in lobbying for equitable treatment of Jewish and other minority students in the public school system. “Equity is important because people have to know that when they walk into a school system that they are valued for who they are, and if people don’t feel valued for who they are it has a psychological impact on their educational progress and growth,” said Halber.
Growing up in New York, Halber said it was a given that public schools were closed for Yom Kippur and at least one day of Rosh Hashanah. The JCRC has successfully influenced policy in this regard in half a dozen Northern Virginia school systems, but the idea that the majority of students in Fairfax still don’t have off for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is “appalling” to him.
He finds the need for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Bahai kids to choose between their academics and their faith when it comes to observing religious holidays disrespectful. The JCRC and its interfaith partners “collected lots of stories” and proposed a calendar that took these holidays into account; but when the issue came to a vote, the initiative was voted down 7-5. The present alternative system of using excused absences is insufficient, said Halber, because it still puts the burden of deciding whether or not to go to school on the students. The JCRC and its allies are not giving up yet, he said.
Educating and empowering
If antisemitism was a disease, the Jewish community would have identified the antidote many years ago and been able to eliminate it, said Halber. Instead, antisemitism is a syndrome: “It flares up at different times, and we have ways of reducing the inflammation and putting it under control and containing it,” he said.
“We are at a time when it is flaring up,” he continued. “In the last three to four years, between political polarization and COVID, I think it’s definitely at a high point.”
To monitor and combat antisemitism in schools, the JCRC maintains relationships with law enforcement, teachers unions and school officials.
“We don’t come in with the approach that we want to gouge their eyes out or we want to punish somebody,” Halber said. “Yes, if something was done and somebody is responsible, something wrong, they have to be punished; we have a very strong backbone. But we look always look towards how can we improve the situation, working with the resources available? How can we change the situation for the better? How can we help those people who have been affected? How can we educate people so these things won’t happen again in the future?”
Additionally, through the JCRC’s Student to Student program, teams of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform students speak to public school groups and demystify what it means to be Jewish. There are presently 90 kids serving in this ambassadorial capacity across the Greater Washington area. “It’s teens to teens, which gives it a new power dynamic, and one of the most interesting things is seeing these Jewish kids feeling empowered,” said Halber.
Moving online means reaching more people
The JCRC’s Dor L’Dor program usually involves one Holocaust survivor sitting with a gathering of 10 teens. This year, more than 1,000 teens and their families were involved in 15 online gatherings in collaboration with a number of organizations, synagogues, schools and interfaith groups. Since it’s founding, more than 1,000 teens participated in the JCRC’s Israel education fellowship program, which went from an in-person to an online format. The program helps prepare kids to be Israel activists on campus.
Additionally, the organization’s annual Yom HaShoah event had 850 viewers when it aired live online this year and then 14,000 people watched the recording of the event afterward.
“While it’s not the same personal touch that you get when you’re in a room with somebody, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of expanding our programs outreach,” Halber said.
The JCRC’s recent efforts have not been limited to the Jewish community, either. They included partnering with organizations like the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence to ensure that low-income students had access to warm meals and internet during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the JCRC “mostly helped other agencies impact people,” said Halber. “We were the chief enabler, in a positive way. Now, I think JCRC is increasingly becoming a household word in the Jewish community because so many people got to know JCRC and what we did during COVID.” While he partially attributed the boost in recognition to the organization’s increased financial investment in building its social media presence, he thinks that impacting people’s lives directly, as opposed to indirectly impacting them through supporting the work of other institutions, is raising awareness of the JCRC. The organization’s fundraising reflects this uptick, “which has been extraordinary,” said Halber.
Lobbying impacts dollars given and decisions made
In the past year, the JCRC helped secure $8.5 million in direct grants and grant programs accessible to the Jewish community, according to Halber. In addition, the JCRC was involved in establishing a $10 million program that helps more than 100 low-income Jewish families in Montgomery County with scholarships to send their kids to Jewish day schools.
Since the start of the pandemic, the JCRC lobbied on behalf of policies that would prevent evictions and support food equity. With residents of institutions like the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes unable to attend day programs, the JCRC also lobbied for priority vaccination for home workers. Additionally, for the first time ever, the JCRC secured funding from the Virginia legislature for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes to expand its programming into Loudoun County. The JCRC was also successful in creating a commission to ensure the presence and quality of Holocaust education in Virginia public schools.
In Maryland, the Montgomery County Council recently approved a $700,000 grant program lobbied for by the JCRC that allows non-profit institutions, including houses of worship, to hire off-duty officers as a protection. There was already a federal program for this for the past 20 years, but “as far as I know, we are the only community in the United States that has a local grant program that is available to provide operating dollars” for this purpose, said Halber. Dozens of Jewish institutions have already applied for the grant.
Additionally, when the council’s redistricting efforts were going to divide the Kemp Mill community right down Arcola Avenue and the Potomac community down Seven Locks Road, the JCRC worked carefully and quickly to stop that from happening.
“Part of being successful is anticipating, not just reacting,” said Halber. The amount of time the JCRC spends on being proactive versus reactive differs depending on what a given year brings, but “we pride ourselves on a very proactive response.”
Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets.
Correction: The article has been changed to correct the number of people who watched the recording of the annual Yom Hashoah event, and the period of time in which 1,000 teens participated in the JCRC’s Israel education fellowship program. In addition, the quote that begins “We don’t come in with the approach…” was incorrectly attributed to Sarah Winkleman, director of education, programs and services.