Your Daily Phil: Jewish families flee Oakland schools over antisemitism fears

Good Thursday morning.

In today’s edition of Your Daily Phil, we report on a meeting between National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and the Jewish Federations of North America on Capitol Hill. Marking the start of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, we feature an opinion piece by Tali Cohen Carrus and Elianna Mentzer about changing the paradigm of disability education in Jewish settings. Also in this newsletter: Allan RippMeggie Wyschogrod Fredman and Dame Vivien Duffield. We’ll start with Jewish families in Oakland, Calif., leaving their school district over alleged rampant antisemitism.

Shira and her husband settled in Oakland, Calif., a few years ago, expecting that the San Francisco Bay Area would, unlike their previous home in Florida, provide an inclusive educational atmosphere in which to raise their son. Instead, Oakland’s K-12 school district has become a center of anti-Israel sentiment, and is now the target of aTitle VI investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, reports eJewishPhilanthropy’s Haley Cohen

“We left Florida because I could see the tide turning there, I could see what was happening in the school boards there in trying to erase historical narratives, and I didn’t want my son to grow up around that,” Shira, who requested her last name be withheld to discuss a sensitive matter, told eJP. The family decamped to Oakland “because of its inclusivity. It does not rewrite history.” Then Oct. 7 happened.

Shira’s idealistic view of the city first changed in early fall when her son entered seventh grade in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Now, Shira and her husband are among at least 30 Jewish families transferring their children out of OUSD in the wake of the DOE investigation into Oakland and San Francisco’s school districts about whether an unauthorized teach-in for Gaza by educators last month amounted to discrimination against students on the basis of their shared Jewish ancestry. 

After Oct. 7, he came home with assignments that Shira calls “political in nature and made him uncomfortable.” One such assignment, according to Shira, involved “looking at pictures of a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rally where people were carrying pictures that said, ‘Stop the genocide.’ They were given multiple choice options as to what would be a good vocabulary word to describe the photos. Options included ‘bravery.’ My son chose the word ‘incite’ because he felt it incited violence or hate towards Israel and Jewish people. He failed that assignment.” 

In December, OUSD staff held an unauthorized teach-in at Oakland public schools, which featured dozens of teachers incorporating the conflict in Gaza into their curricula. (The school board condemned the teach-in, with OUSD Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell writing in a letter to the community on Dec. 4, “I want to make clear that the District does not authorize this action.”)

Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, told eJP that “the hatred we have witnessed in Oakland — notably perpetuated by public school administrators and educators — is unprecedented.” 

Gregory called on Oakland’s teachers’ union and school board members “to show the country it is taking its antisemitism problem seriously and is making the changes to ensure our shared spaces — especially our schools — are safe for everyone.” 

Shira, who plans to apply in the spring for a school district transfer to enroll her son in the neighboring Piedmont Unified School District, on safety grounds, said: “I live in Oakland, this is where I pay my taxes, I should be able to send my son to public school here. We’re supposed to be a very diverse community and it seems those protections are not offered to Jewish people.”

Read the full report here.

KIRBY KIBITZ

NSC spokesman discusses ‘productive’ hostage talks, his own ties to the Jewish community

Rabbi Dina Brawer, executive director of the U.K.-based World Jewish Relief’s American branch, speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2023.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2023. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

John Kirby, the White House National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, spoke on Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C., to a gathering of activists from the Jewish Federations of North America, providing an update on the status of hostage release negotiations, as well as elaborating on his own long-standing ties to the Jewish community. The NSC spokesman said that hostage negotiations “have been productive,” reports Marc Rod for eJewishPhilanthropy’s sister publication Jewish Insider.

UNRWAtching: He said that the U.S. is “closely” watching the United Nations’ investigation of UNRWA employees’ involvement in the Oct. 7 attack and response to it. “We’re not in a position to dictate terms to them, but we do believe this is probably a propitious moment for UNRWA to take a hard look at itself and make appropriate changes going forward,” Kirby said. “We’re going to stay focused on this.” At the same time, Kirby emphasized that UNRWA is doing “important work” in Gaza to address the humanitarian crisis.

A Mensch: “I have great respect for the contributions of the Jewish community to this country, to the world,” said Kirby, who has emerged as a popular figure in the Jewish community for his strong defenses of Israel. “And I have, and always will have, an abiding deep respect for the State of Israel.” He traced his affinity back to a Little League coach named — fittingly — Dick Mensch, whom he described as a “terrific” mentor. “He was constantly checking on me, even after Little League was over and I went off to high school, even college, I would hear from him from time to time,” Kirby said. “He meant a lot to our family, and through him, I began to see what the Jewish community was like.”

Read the full report here and sign up for Jewish Insider’s Daily Kickoff here.

PARADIGM SHIFT

From good intentions to tangible outcomes: Transforming Jewish disability education

Shiluv speaker Avner Fink, who has low vision, shares his lived experience and demonstrates adaptive equipment with a classroom of third graders. Courtesy/Gateways

“It can be easy for education professionals to assume that all our Jewish schools, synagogues and institutions are fully accepting of people with disabilities. We may have ramps and elevators installed, or designate quiet spaces, or provide earplugs or large print materials for prayer services — but what attitudes might be uncovered upon a closer inspection?” write Tali Cohen Carrus and Elianna Mentzer of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.

Identifying the need: “The idea for a new kind of Jewish disability education program grew out of Tali Cohen Carrus’ experiences working in the Tikvah program for campers with disabilities at Camp Ramah. It was there that Cohen Carrus, our senior director of programs at Gateways, observed a need to have open and honest conversations with campers of all ages who had questions about why their peers sometimes acted, communicated or behaved in ways that were unexpected. Traditional sensitivity training, Cohen Carrus found, often unintentionally fostered a mindset of ‘us vs. them.’ While this traditional approach was effective at creating a culture of kindness towards the campers whose disabilities were more visible, Cohen Carrus noticed a disconnect between attitudes towards campers identified as part of the Tikvah program and attitudes towards campers across the spectrum of neurodivergence throughout camp, especially those with less visible disabilities.”

A different approach: “Shiluv’s unique framework sets it apart from conventional disability awareness training models, preparing educators and students to appreciate the value of each individual and understand what it truly means to embrace and include individuals with learning, physical and developmental variations… With the immense power of educators to shape young mindsets comes the responsibility to normalize disability and difference during these years when children are formulating their answers to vital questions like: Who am I? Who are the people around me? What does it mean to be part of a community?”

Read the full piece here.

Worthy Reads

Don’t Fight the Light: If you’re struggling with guilt about engaging in “normal” activities — let alone laughing, or having a simcha — while there are still hostages in Gaza and Israelis under fire, remember that beating yourself up helps no one, writes Kylie Ora Lobell in the Jewish Journal. “Torah Judaism is about celebrating life, about doing as many mitzvot as possible to try to be closer to Hashem and lead a more fulfilling existence. Even during the Holocaust, people found ways to celebrate the holidays in the camps, to find the smallest slivers of joy possible. And in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre, IDF soldiers are getting married in their uniforms, mothers are naming their beautiful babies after the victims and people are coming together for simchot… If we feel guilty 24/7 for living our lives, we won’t be able to support our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel, who need us to be strong now more than ever. We need to defend them, to offer them comfort during this tumultuous time. If we all feel guilty every second of the day, we’ll be depressed and listless and unable to help – and that’s the last thing we need… For now, I won’t ‘live my life’ as I did pre-Oct. 7. Something fundamentally changed in all of us that horrible day. It made me focus more on giving back to my fellow Jews, providing comfort to them and very publicly standing up for Israel. Though things have shifted, I also won’t give up my resolve to be proudly Jewish and b’simcha. That’s what Hashem wants from us: to say ‘l’chaim’ in the face of fear and to fulfill our unique mission as Jews to be a light in the darkness.” [JewishJournal]

No Going Back: In The Washington Post, Allan Ripp discusses his reaction to the decision to tear down part of his childhood synagogue, the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, to prepare the site for a new memorial to the 11 people murdered there in 2018. “The mechanized destruction of my old temple represented yet another Jewish death by terror — Tree of Life as I’d known it had officially gone to its grave. But there will be a rebirth. The synagogue’s conservative membership had been dwindling for years, even as many of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox shuls have thrived. At the time of the massacre, it housed three separate mini-congregations, including one meeting in a basement space where kids’ bar mitzvah dance parties were held when I was growing up. It’s where the first shooting casualties occurred… Uplifting and therapeutic as the makeover plans are, I wish more of the old Tree of Life could remain when the new center is expected to open in 2026. Part of the aura of a house of worship derives from the rituals we associate with it, whether wearing a worn prayer shawl, seeing familiar faces or taking the same pew each week, even if there are no assigned seats at shul… I’m sure that once the new Tree of Life opens, I’ll want to see the exhibits and test the spiritual vibe. Of course, it will never be the same, but families will begin forming new memories. The Jewish history and tradition of rebuilding after tragedy is unshakable.” [WashPost]

‘A New Model’: Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has donated $71 million since 2022, when the company’s founder and his family relinquished ownership of the company and declared that all of its future profits would go toward environmental protection and combating climate change, reports The New York Times. “Patagonia and [company founders] the Chouinards set up a series of trusts, limited liability corporations and charitable groups designed to protect the independence of the clothing company while distributing all of its profits through an entity known as the Holdfast Collective. Patagonia paid an initial $50 million dividend to Holdfast in 2022. It made another payment to Holdfast last year. That figure is not available in tax filings or the internal documents, and the company would not disclose it. Each year going forward, Patagonia will transfer all the profits it does not reinvest in the company to Holdfast. ‘This is a new model of how wealthy people can approach their philanthropy,’ said Stacy Palmer, chief executive of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. ‘It’s a combination of charity and politics, and it’s the beginning of changes we’re going to see more of.’” [NYTimes]

Around the Web

The American Jewish Committee has tapped Meggie Wyschogrod Fredman, who has held several roles in AJC’s young leadership department over the past decade, as the organization’s next director of Jewish communal partnerships…

Scholastic Focus, the largest publisher of children’s books in the world, released a new series of Holocaust literature by Joshua M. Greene, designed for school-age readers… 

Rozanne and Billy Rosenthal donated $25 million to the University of Texas at Austin’s department of management, which will be named for them…

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote to pass a city council resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war…

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey vetoed a similar resolution passed by the Minneapolis City Council, saying the measure failed “to recognize the history of Israeli Jews”…

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law legislation codifying the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism as the state’s official definition…

Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is supporting an Israeli bank’s decision to block the transfer of $2.2 million from Russian-Israeli oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is under international sanctions, to the Zaka emergency response service, citing concerns that receiving the funds could expose the Israeli banking system to legal risks…

Haaretz investigation raises questions about the conduct of Zaka, which helped clear the bodies of Oct. 7 victims in the weeks following the attacks, but may have also deviated seriously from accepted crime-scene collection norms and taken advantage of the tragedy for fundraising…

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the distribution of $25 million to the state’s Jewish day schools to increase safety and security measures… 

The University of Florida Hillel kicked off its annual “Spread Cream Cheese, Not Hate” Day, with at least 325 student volunteers collecting nearly 4,000 pledges to “combat antisemitism and all forms of hate”…

The Wall Street Journal examines the rise and fall of 23andMe, which is now facing a class-action lawsuit after the genetic testing firm experienced a data breach, which exposed nongenetic information of 6.9 million customers, including some 1 million people with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry…

Rabbi Menachem Margolin is launching the America Middle East Press Association, a sister organization to the Europe-Israel Press Association, which is meant to provide journalists with “broader and deeper insight and knowledge about Israel’s economy and its contributions to the world”…

A new initiative in Providence, R.I., called Jewish Providence, is offering incentives to encourage young Orthodox families to move to the area — including $50,000, a year of free Orthodox school tuition and a $1,000 move-in stipend…

Maccabi World Union is launching a global awareness campaign in 100 cities to highlight the sexual violence inflicted by Hamas on Oct. 7…

USAID Administrator Samantha Power is facing internal criticism from some staffers over the Biden administration’s support for Israel in the war against Hamas…

The British Friends of the Art Museums of Israel and Sotheby’s is hosting an art auction in London to support educational and art therapy programs for Oct. 7 survivors, including a special grant to support the rebuilding of the art gallery at Kibbutz Be’eri…

British Dame Vivien Duffield, through the Clore Israel Foundationpaid to renovate tennis courts and a clubhouse for Jewish and Arab Israeli children in the northern town of Beit Hananya…

The Ford Foundation is issuing $4.2 million in grants in support of 59 documentaries on social justice

Pic of the Day



Over 50,000 people attend the traditional Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City today, during Chol Hamoed (the intermediary days) of Sukkot.
Courtesy

Black women, Jewish women and Black Jewish women came together this week in Cleveland for Rekindle’s Women’s Healing Circle, a new initiative bringing women from interfaith backgrounds together to discuss shared concerns, challenges and opportunities.

Birthdays

Annie Liebovitz smiles
Albin Lohr Jones/Pacific Press/Lightrocket via Getty Images

Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, Jessica S. Tisch… 

Executive vice chairman emeritus of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm I. Hoenlein… Mediator and arbitrator, he is a past president of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, Howard S. Fredman… Academy Award-winning producer and motion picture executive, Zvi Howard Rosenman… Midtown Manhattan physician specializing in Nephrology and Internal Medicine, Mark H. Gardenswartz, MD… Laureate conductor of Orchestra 914 and author in 1994 of The Jewish 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Jews of All TimeMichael Jeffrey Shapiro… Far Rockaway, N.Y., resident, Maurice Lazar… President and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was previously president of the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, Stan Kasten… Publisher of Baltimore Jewish LifeJeff Cohn… CEO of the Charleston (S.C.) Jewish Federation, Judi Corsaro… Artist, Israel Tsvaygenbaum… Director for policy and government affairs at AIPAC, David Gillette… 25-year veteran of the Israeli foreign service including a three-year stint as DCOM at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, now a scholar-in-residence at American University in Washington, Dan Arbell… EVP and chief program officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Becky Sobelman-Stern… One of Israel’s top soccer players of all time, Eli Ohana… Actor, comedian, director, writer and producer, Pauly Shore… Voting rights and election law attorney, Marc E. Elias… Mid-Atlantic regional director for AIPAC, Tara Brown… Managing director of Pickwick Capital Partners, Ari Raskas… Canadian actress, Rachelle Lefevre… Experimental jazz guitarist, bassist, oud player and composer, Yoshie Fruchter… Venezuelan journalist, writer and TV and radio presenter, Shirley Varnagy Bronfenmajer… Libertarian political activist, radio host and author, Adam Charles Kokesh… Comedian, writer, actress and illustrator, Abbi Jacobson… Account executive at Google focused on elections, Andrew Friedman… Sportscaster and sports reporter who covers the New York Mets for SNY, Steven N. Gelbs… AVP for health policy at the University of Southern California, Stephanie Beth Cohen… Member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-CA), Sara Josephine Jacobs… Ob-Gyn physician in Atlanta, she is married to Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Alisha Sara Kramer… Director of demand generation at SchoolStatus, David Aryeh Leshaw… Television and movie actress and model, Julia Garner