The Montgomery County Jewish Educators Alliance (MCJEA) was founded nearly a year ago to counter the rising number of antisemitic incidents taking place in the public schools and throughout the county.
Since the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, the group has spoken out against what they describe as a vague and generalized stance on the situation from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
“It did not feel supportive at all,” said Rebecca Kotok, a 45-year-old school counselor at Fallsmead Elementary School in Rockville and a founder of MCJEA. Other school districts, she said, have taken a strong position against the terrorist organization Hamas for the brutal murder of more than 1,400 Jews and the taking of approximately 230 Jewish hostages.
MCPS was silent for a few days and then came out with “an anemic and insulting message. It did not mention Israel. It did not mention Hamas as a terrorist organization,” Kotok said. “It mentioned natural disasters and war and offers the services of school counselors” and other personnel.
Montgomery County is home to one of the highest Jewish population densities in the country, with 10 percent of the county being Jewish and serving as home to 45 percent of all Jewish Maryland residents.
“We were simply hoping and expecting that our employer would do what they have trained us to do, which is to speak out when you see an injustice, particularly of a racial nature,” Kotok said. “These people were targeted because they are Jews. So, it’s important to name it, name the perpetrator, name the victim or group and condemn it in no uncertain terms. It was very shocking and disheartening to not see that from them and, in fact, to see the opposite where they generalize.”
At an Oct. 11 meeting, “there was criticism and concerns shared about how MCPS was handling the situation,” said MCJEA founder Andrew Winter, the 53-year-old principal of Ritchie Park Elementary School in Rockville. “I facilitated the conversation and there was an overwhelming desire for more to come from MCPS.”
The Washington Jewish Week sent an email to the MCPS spokesperson, asking for a comment on official statements connected to the Oct. 7 attacks. MCSP responded with a link to the latest posting of a letter that vaguely referred to violence and its impact on Montgomery County school children.
The MCJEA was created with a few goals in mind, Winter said. First, is to create awareness of Jewish culture; second, to serve as a resource for MCPS to ensure that materials are accurate and age-appropriate to address antisemitism and its impact on the Montgomery County community; and lastly, “to kibbitz and kvetch with one another.”
The group’s organizers established that participants didn’t need to be Jewish to join. “While it’s preferred that members are Jewish, we welcome allies. Parents and students are invited to join as well,” said Winter, who is affiliated with Temple Beth Ami in Potomac.
Several meetings followed its inception and in April, the group held an event for Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, at Flora Singer Elementary School, which is the first school in the country named after a Holocaust survivor who lived in the community. “We had a really nice, dignified and solemn event to remember and recall,” Winter said. Over 100 people attended.
“The group has made a difference, and it has provided a space for Jewish educators and allies to come together to talk about concerns, to talk about ways we can support Montgomery County Public Schools and partner with them to try and make sure that the Jewish community feels valued, seen and heard,” according to Winter.
The MCPS has responded sensitively and appropriately to antisemitic incidents within the school district, Kotok said.
At an Oct. 11 meeting, 300 people showed up in person and virtually. “I think it was due to what transpired in Israel on Oct. 7 and people needing a place to come together, to talk and to share how they were impacted and how they felt,” Winter said. Discussion centered on what MCPS has done and not done to address antisemitism.
“We definitely started to create more of a community among the educators,” said Kotok, 45, who is a member of Shaare Torah synagogue in Gaithersburg. “I think since Oct. 7 everything we’re doing has been amplified with our bringing together Jewish educators and other stakeholders. We’ve been very concerned about MCPS and the way they are handling both antisemitic incidents and also the way that they didn’t respond to Oct. 7.”
“What we are accomplishing is formalizing our collective voice to serve as a resource both to the community and hopefully also to MCPS,” she added.
At his school, Winter and his assistant principal gave each of a dozen Jewish staff members a challah on the first Friday after Oct. 7. The card read: “We appreciate you, we value you and we know how personal and difficult this week has been and just wanted to make sure that they knew their administration supported them.”
Ahead for the organization is advocating for more Holocaust education within Montgomery County Public Schools. “There’s great opportunity there and I look forward to partnering with the curriculum office and leadership to make that happen,” Winter said.
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.