on the frontline

Becoming antisemitism first-responders

In Short

How can today’s Jewish teens, who are so used to being loud, proud and empowered agents for change in the world, respond to hatred, be allies while needing allyship themselves and connect to their Jewish identities in opposition to influencers using their platforms to peddle lies?

Over the last year, many in the field of Jewish education have found ourselves in the position of becoming antisemitism first-responders. In this role, we are faced with the challenge of pivoting from our thoughtfully laid-out pedagogic goals to meet the most immediate needs of the day: how do we make sense of the rising hatred that targets our community? What does it mean to stand up to those who manifest the most modern iterations of the world’s oldest hatred? And how does Jewish joy brighten the darkness that antisemitism so often brings?

These, of course, are the most existential of missions when it comes to antisemitism education. But the questions that come are often far more tangible: should I respond to the swastika-laden replies on my Instagram post, or should I just ignore them and move on? What do I say when I’m put on the spot as the only Jewish student in my class?

Antisemitism has become an increasingly vocalized problem in the United States. A string of celebrities giving voice to antisemitic sentiments – Ye, Kyrie Irving and Dave Chapelle, all in quick succession – brought to the forefront a reality that has been festering for longer than many realize. Antisemitism remains deeply present and ingrained in the psyches of many, and we’re faced with the unanswerable question: why do people hate us? And simultaneously, what can we do to stop those who do? For Jewish educators, our learners are living these questions and looking for new answers.

Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem. It’s a global problem, of which Jews are the unfortunate victims. How can today’s Jewish teens, who are so used to being loud, proud and empowered agents for change in the world, navigate responding to hatred while not dignifying it, be allies while now needing allyship themselves, and connect to their Jewish identities when influencers are using their platforms to peddle hate and lies?

To be a Jewish teen today is to live in a world of contradictions. And to be the educators charged with their burgeoning senses of Jewish identity and pride is to navigate a changing reality that calls for empowering young people and partnering with them on responding to the challenges of the day. Jewish educators are often on the front line of both the most basic, and the most existential, of dilemmas.

Our students ask: Can I listen to Ye’s music? What message am I sending by wearing Adidas sneakers? Is it ok to stay silent when a Jewish joke is made, rather than make things awkward? Why do people hate us?

Their parents ask: What’s a safe college for my child? What do I do if they’re being bullied online for showing their Judaism? Can I tell them their Judaism is important, but also that maybe it’s not a good idea to wear visible markers of Jewish identity in public?

Jewish education around antisemitism comes with tremendous nuance. It’s not enough to upend planned content for assemblies and major conversations every few months when the next seemingly inevitable incident makes this a hot topic once again. Instead, empowering young people in this area must take the same kind of proactive approach that the Jewish community invests in when we want to embed importance in any topic. 

Funding in the antisemitism education space must move beyond just preparing teens for Israel and the college campus experience. Antisemitism education must be embedded into Jewish education in age-appropriate ways early on, in ways that are reflective of the diverse, multifaceted experience of the American Jewish community. We must recognize that success in antisemitism education will not — on its own — eradicate antisemitism, something that is not our burden. Instead, success in this effort is the student who feels Jewishly confident and proud. Success is the educator who is able to give context to antisemitic tropes and stereotypes, and how the arc of history manifests today. 

In strategic efforts such as Shine a Light, this work has begun. But there are many potential next steps. Success is the strength of the allyship and relationships that we can rely on in times of crisis. Success comes when Jewish identities are not shaped because of antisemitism, or even despite it, but from places of strength, pride and boundless joy.

If success in educating learners and communities about antisemitism requires empowered individuals, how do we get there? First, we give voice to and name our needs. What is being sought? Is it a feeling of security? The answer to a question that challenges a learner? The phone number or email address of someone to reach out to for support? Validation that what they’re facing is real and legitimate? 

Naming the challenge is the first victory. Next, success comes from support – from cultivating and being allies, and understanding the larger network of leaders, learners, and advocates that we’re able to tap into. Success comes from fortification, from an understanding of the why of Judaism beyond defiance and from thriving in lifelong Jewish journeys.

Jewish education is so much more than antisemitism education, but success in antisemitism education is the most robust when Jewish education has room to flourish. When an alumnus comes away with enough of a sense of self to be proud, internally and externally, and when an educator can feel confident that they’ve instilled a confidence that cannot be quashed.

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the senior director of knowledge, ideas and learning at the Jewish Education Project.