If it rains today, it might be because Jews are controlling the weather. Or at least that’s what some of Rachel Barold’s classmates told her.
Barold, a freshman at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, has been on the receiving end of antisemitic comments and threats for much of her first year at the school. But she wouldn’t call herself a victim.
The 15-year-old has taken matters into her own hands, and has inspired other Jewish high schoolers to do the same.
As a founding member of Jewish student group Jews4Change, Barold organized a school walkout on Dec. 22, following an antisemitic incident in which “Jews Not Welcome” was graffitied on the school’s sign board — only a day after someone graffitied a swastika on a bench at Montgomery Mall. Three hundred to 600 students showed up to the protest the day before the school’s winter break.
About a month later, Winston Churchill High School sophomore Leah Kreisler, wanting to show solidarity with Walt Whitman students, organized a walkout at her school. Two hundred students attended the rally.
“Antisemitism is unfortunately something that has and can impact all the schools and everyone….It’s important for students all over the county to say, ‘We’re here, we’re scared and this needs to change,’ because what happened at Whitman can happen at our school; it can happen tomorrow,” Kreisler, 16, said.
Maybe the kids are alright.
In her first year at Walt Whitman, Barold has been the witness to frequent antisemitism.
“It’s Kanye jokes every single day,” she said.
In addition to students barraging her with questions about her thoughts on the antisemitic remarks of rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Barold said she’s had students tell her she can afford expensive items because she’s Jewish. One student even attributed the rain one day to Jews, saying they can control the weather.
Jewish students can often feel alone in these situations, Barold said.
“There’s not really many resources for students to go to,” said the Bethesda resident and Temple Sinai member.
Though Winston Churchill High School in Potomac hasn’t experienced the same level of antisemitism as Walt Whitman, Kreisler is familiar with antisemitic rhetoric.
“I’ve definitely had people, you know, say comments that are pretty disturbing,” she said.
According to the Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah member who lives in Potomac, the purpose of the walkouts was not only to address recent antisemitic incidents, but to push for greater Holocaust education and know how to address future anti-Jewish hate.
“It’s so important to talk about it so that people know how to react and know how to respond to it,” Kreisler said.
At the walkout at Walt Whitman, Barold wasn’t the only student to take the stage. She, with the help of school administration, set up a podium and microphone. After Barold’s speech, she passed the mic to student after Jewish student who shared their own experiences of antisemitism and family stories, including those of relatives who survived the Holocaust.
Just as important as Jewish students speaking out were non-Jewish students listening. Barold hopes that the critical mass of students in the school’s auditorium sent a message to the Montgomery County Public Schools district that antisemitism will not be tolerated.
“It’s important, despite our differences, that we actually come together and create real change, because as of right now, MCPS is doing a lot of talking about antisemitism, but they’re not doing that much,” Barold said. “It’s important that we keep talking about this so they’re actually forced to do something and not just sweep it under the rug like they have for so many years.”
What the future holds
Kreisler said she wouldn’t have been able to speak up with confidence about antisemitism if it weren’t for her involvement with Model United Nations. She holds a host of extracurricular positions, including on the school newspaper staff and on the executive board of Winston Churchill’s Jewish Student Union.
Though she’s not sure about what her future holds, she knows that addressing antisemitism is what she wants to be doing now. This year, she joined the American Jewish Committee’s Leaders for Tomorrow program, which meets monthly to discuss topics such as antisemitism and Israel advocacy.
Also looking forward is Barold, who, when she’s not competing in speech and debate or Model UN, or playing the trombone in the school band, is spending time on Capitol Hill. She’s testified for two Maryland state bills on Holocaust education and is meeting with senators from across the country on enacting legislation to increase federal protections against antisemitism.
While activism may begin in a high school auditorium with a walkout, Kreisler and Barold are certain that the fight against antisemitism will ripple out from their local communities.
“It’s important that we come together as a Jewish people to show that this is a problem everywhere across America, and it needs to be changed everywhere across America,” Barold said. ■