Rabbi Adam Raskin
The heroes of the struggle against the recent spate of antisemitism in Montgomery County Public Schools are the bold and resolute high school students themselves. Jewish agencies and synagogues have certainly provided critical resources and support for these efforts, and in many cases school staff have as well, but the people on the front lines of this effort are an amazing cadre of high school student leaders.
I have attended two student-led walkouts in the past few months at Montgomery County high schools. After schools were defaced with anti-Jewish messages, or swastikas appeared on school property, or jokes about gas chambers and killing Jews became commonplace, the drive to repudiate these abominations came overwhelmingly from Jewish students.
Back in December, my congregation donated photocopying services to a student walkout organizer after the screed “Jews Not Welcome Here” was spray painted on the sign in front of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. This student was preparing fliers and leaflets announcing the gathering a few days later. That’s how I met the indomitable Rachel Barold. In just a few days, this gutsy high school freshman orchestrated a walkout attended by hundreds of students, faculty and administrators.
A force of nature, Rachel contacted the news media, local Jewish leaders and politicians, and launched an Instagram handle: “wwhs_jews4change.” Rachel took the microphone that morning and with remarkable eloquence and poise (and without a single note in front of her) addressed the Whitman community, calling out acts of antisemitism and demanding that the school system do a better job teaching about the Holocaust.
Then one student after another came forward, bravely took the microphone, and shared personal testimonials about how this hateful rhetoric had affected them. I recall asking myself if I would have had even a semblance of the courage or confidence to stand in front of my peers that these students displayed.
A few months later, when antisemitic detritus showed up at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, another impassioned student leader, Leah Kreisler, led an entourage of students to the football field bleachers. Microphone in hand, she adjured her fellow students to reject expressions of hate and intolerance, as they cheered and held up banners.
Notwithstanding the fact that it was cold and windy, and that the walkout overlapped with tests and class presentations, the bleachers swelled with Jewish and non-Jewish students alike who responded to the call for solidarity by Kreisler and other student leaders.
What an incredible irony that the defacers and vandals, the antagonizers and bullies intend to make their peers fear being open about their Jewish identity. What has happened instead is nothing less than a groundswell of activism initiated by Jewish students themselves. Rather than tucking in their Magen David necklaces, stuffing their yarmulkes in their pockets and keeping a low-profile, these kids have proclaimed loudly and proudly that they have as much a right as anyone else to be here, and that they refuse to check their Jewishness at the doors of their schools, or anywhere else.
While I certainly worry about the proliferation of antisemitic propaganda in our community, what gives me more confidence than anything is that this scourge will be met by the strength and convictions of these tenacious Jewish teenagers. Their grassroots organizing and unabashed pride is a great harbinger for the Jewish future. ■
Rabbi Adam Raskin is senior rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac.