Combating Antisemitism in Secondary Schools

A Framework on How to Address the Rise of Antisemitism in High Schools and Its Impact on Jewish Teens

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When Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School (BZ), whose graduates typically attend non-Jewish high schools, saw its alumni facing increasing antisemitism in their high school environments, it knew it was time to take action and facilitate important conversations to combat antisemitism.

BZ reached out to Spertus Institute, which offers a groundbreaking Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism, to create a special intensive workshop for Chicago-area secondary school educators to grow their knowledge about antisemitism, learn to identify and respond to antisemitism, and engage in complex discussions.

On March 10, 2024, BZ hosted a workshop on Combating Antisemitism in Secondary Schools: A Framework for Critical Conversations, taught by Dr. Dean P. Bell and Dr. Keren E. Fraiman of the Spertus Institute. With the goal of cultivating safe and inclusive environments for Jewish students and their communities, this event welcomed over 50 attendees from more than 20 schools and districts in the Chicagoland area. 

Increase in Antisemitism

For several years now, there has been an alarming rise in antisemitism in the US and across the globe. Already in a range of surveys conducted by Pew Research Center, Anti-Defamation League, and American Jewish Committee (AJC), among others, 90% of US Jews perceived some antisemitism in America and a majority thought there was more antisemitism in the US today than five years before. Sixty percent of survey respondents indicated that they had a direct and personal experience with antisemitism in the prior 12 months.

The most common explanation for the increase in antisemitism, according to these respondents, was that people feel increasingly free to express antisemitic views given the polarization in broader society. The increase in antisemitism has been noticeable in many areas of Jewish life, especially on college campuses and in high school and teen spaces. This trend has not spared educational institutions, with reports of incidents increasingly affecting high schools and teen environments.

Nazi Costumes and Other Incidents

BZ alumni and their parents reported instances of antisemitism at their local high schools, beginning well before October 7. These incidents ranged from a Nazi Halloween costume, to schools canceling Holocaust Remembrance Day programs, to more nuanced instances such as how conflicts in the Middle East were presented in classrooms.

Beyond these occurrences, the lack of skills and policies on the part of the schools to respond to these incidents and protect their Jewish students, faculty, and staff has left members of the BZ community feeling unsettled. In facing the present circumstances, these students and their families sought guidance and support from BZ, the institution they trust and once called their “home” — the way many families think of their own local Jewish day schools.

The massacre of Israelis on October 7, 2023, has led to an even greater rise in antisemitism. According to an AJC survey of American Jews, 63% report that they believe that the status of Jews in the US is less secure than a year ago, and 46% of American Jews say that they have altered their behavior due to fear of antisemitism (up from 38% in 2022). Approximately a quarter of recent Jewish college students report feeling unsafe on campus because they are Jewish and avoid “wearing, carrying, or displaying things that would identify them as Jewish out of fear of antisemitism.”

Designing a Response

It is clear that the occurrence of antisemitic and anti-Israel events will continue to be present on high school campuses. As a Jewish Day School that sends its graduates off to primarily non-Jewish high schools, BZ felt it was incumbent upon them to facilitate important conversations with area high schools about antisemitism. BZ administrators reached out to Dr. Keren E. Fraiman and Dr. Dean P. Bell at Spertus Institute to design a program on Combating Antisemitism in Secondary Schools.

Preparing middle and high school administrators and educators to recognize and combat antisemitism is essential to ensure that Jewish students, employees, and families feel welcome and safe on these campuses. BZ leveraged connections to Chicagoland high schools and leaders in the space of combating antisemitism to create the opportunity for high school professionals to learn and grow their knowledge and skills.

To combat antisemitism, it is necessary to truly understand the various ways it presents, the origins of antisemitism, and the type of impact it has on the Jewish and non-Jewish people who experience it.

Based on conversations with other schools and the families who attend them, it became clear that it was necessary to fill significant knowledge gaps through dedicated antisemitism training. Therefore, the program was designed to allow participants to fully immerse themselves in a space where the sole focus would be on combating antisemitism for more than just a couple of hours.

This setup ensured there was sufficient time for the participants to understand the complexities of how antisemitism presents and the impact it has on the emotional and physical safety of Jewish people. The workshop aimed to equip educators and administrators with the necessary tools to identify instances of antisemitism within their schools, emphasizing the significance of prevention and the appropriate course of action in addressing such incidents.

Convening a Workshop

The goals of the workshop were for participants to feel better equipped to identify, prevent, and respond to antisemitism; and to be able to identify instances that may create a negative impact on Jewish students/families and proactively strategize how to prevent them from occurring.

In addressing these goals, the seven-hour workshop covered several core topics, including an introduction to key contexts and themes in the historical and contemporary expression of antisemitism, the ways we define and talk about antisemitism, the nature and diversity of Judaism and of Jewish identity, the threat of antisemitism as well as the context of broader in-person and online hatred, and strategies to mitigate and respond to antisemitism. Importantly, participants were asked to identify initiatives they would consider implementing when they returned to campus.

The curriculum was developed through a series of conversations and planning meetings between Dr. Sarah Fornero (Assistant Head of School, BZ), Gary Weisserman (Head of School, BZ), Dr. Keren Fraiman (Dean/CAO, Spertus Institute), and Dr. Dean Bell (President/CEO, Spertus Institute). The workshop was taught by Drs. Fraiman and Bell.

Furthermore, staff members from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago joined to share the work they’ve done in partnering directly with students, families, and schools to prevent and respond to incidents of antisemitism. They shared their strategies and engaged in an interactive question-and-answer session to provide some “boots on the ground” approaches that schools could utilize. Some of their suggestions included recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month in May and ensuring that there is a Jewish Student Group/Affinity Group — even if that means holding a space when few or no students attend so they know a space is available should they need it.

Recruiting Attendees

To recruit attendees, BZ leveraged its connections to the local high schools its alumni attend, along with broader connections to independent schools through the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools to promote the event and invite colleagues into conversation. Additionally, local clergy and Jewish organizations helped to promote the event by spreading the word throughout the Chicagoland Jewish community.

The most successful tool for recruiting schools was empowering current and former members of the parent community and the BZ Board of Trustees. By creating template messages that were shared with community members, these constituents had language to utilize when contacting their schools directly. The personal touch was immensely effective in encouraging schools to attend — some parents even offered to sponsor registration for their child’s school to join.

The workshop registered 59 attendees from 23 schools, districts, and educational organizations. Public schools from the city and the suburbs, secular independent schools, Jewish day schools, and Catholic schools were represented. The attendees held roles including classroom teachers, DEI professionals, principals, assistant heads of school, heads of school, superintendents, communications directors, and human resources professionals. The broad range of attendees was well received by both the attendees and the BZ community as recognition that schools understood the urgency and importance of combating antisemitism in their schools.

Shared Strategies

During and after the workshop, formal and informal feedback was collected. Participants, as reported in a post-workshop survey, indicated that they learned about some of the key themes in antisemitism and that many antisemitic undertones exist in everyday speech and experiences. They learned about the need for more nuanced stories and narratives, and not simple and polarizing discourse. Participants felt more informed and more hopeful for their work and the possibilities to support their Jewish students and constituents.

Among the strategies recommended to the participants were:

  • Actively speaking out against antisemitism — acknowledging and reporting it, speaking out against it, and enforcing codes of conduct equitably.
  • Creating educational spaces to support Jewish learners — offering education about Jews, Judaism, and antisemitism, supporting alliances to combat antisemitism and other hatred, and creating space for difficult conversations.
  • Supporting Jewish students — by recognizing the impact that antisemitism has on them, enabling them to show up at school as their full selves, and standing with Jewish constituents at difficult times.

Participants were invited to join a Google Group to stay networked with each other and to identify topics they were interested in learning more about. Based on the feedback received during and after the workshop, there is a strong desire to offer similar programs in the future and to collaborate on how to dig deeper into the specific challenges schools are facing. To create these programs there will need to be coordinated collaboration between the various organizations involved.

The rise in antisemitism demands a communal response. The workshop highlighted both the need for training and the opportunity for collaboration in combating antisemitism and other hatred, creating open spaces for discussion and learning, community building, and ultimately providing Jewish students with an educational experience that allows them to show up with their full Jewish selves.