More than 160 Jewish adults and children gathered at Temple Emanuel of South Hills Monday night to discuss recent incidents of anti-Semitism in their community and gain tools to effectively respond to it.
The two-hour program presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the Community Relations Council (CRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh was called “Words to Action: Empowering the South Hills Jewish Community to Address Bias.” Participants were divided into three separate concurrent sessions: one for the 80 adults there; one for the 35 high school students; and one for the 45 middle school students in attendance.
The adults were instructed by Sharon Fagin, a facilitator from the ADL’s Cleveland office, and Josh Sayles, director of the CRC.
While the CRC is open to bringing this type of program to other local communities, it was brought to the South Hills “because there is a need,” said Sayles. “They asked us for it.”
Currently, the CRC is fielding more issues of anti-Semitism from the South Hills than other areas of the city, according to Sayles.
“But I would also say that while the South Hills got a head start, the city is catching up,” he said.
There has been an uptick in the number of local incidents of anti-Semitism citywide in the last couple months, according to Sayles.
“There’s been no violence, and there’s been no major destruction of property,” he noted. “Fortunately, the incidents have not been, for the most part, escalating to anything beyond what we are used to seeing.”
Jewish parents in both the Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair school districts are concerned by a recent spate of activity in the schools, including anti-Semitic slurs and graffiti, and were eager to get together to share their thoughts and talk about how best to deal with the problem as a community. The evening included small group activities centered on hypothetical anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist situations, with participants brainstorming appropriate reactions.
Julie Silverman, a Mt. Lebanon parent, said in an interview following the program that all three of her children have been “victims of anti-Semitism in high school.”
“It wasn’t terrible, but they have had their experiences with it,” she said.
The anti-Semitism comes mostly in the form of inappropriate comments, Silverman said. “They call them ‘Jew jokes.’ When they went on the eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., [my son] roomed with three other Jewish kids. So, they sat on the bus together, and they got a lot of comments, and he didn’t even want to tell us all the comments. But one was when they rode past the Holocaust Museum, and a lot of the kids were kind of making jokes about it, saying things like, ‘Is that the gas chamber?’ Things like that.”
Silverman was pleased with Monday night’s program but would have liked additional information on how to help children deal with anti-Semitism and how to make the parents of those perpetrating the anti-Semitism aware of their children’s behavior, she said.
“I never thought my children would experience anti-Semitism,” Silverman added. “I thought it was done. I never thought that this was still a thing that was happening.”
The topic of anti-Semitism is one to which the community should be paying more attention, said Aaron Steinfeld of Mt. Lebanon, who has raised the issue before the Mt. Lebanon school board.
“Being a resident of Mt. Lebanon, I’ve seen some things that have happened in the schools, and I think that as a community we have to start paying attention to this as a whole,” he said.
The high school students had their own session, led by ADL facilitator Emily Muskin. The middle school students were led by ADL facilitators Andrea Joseph and Cindy Goodman-Leib.
“We were talking about anti-Semitism and helping them think about what anti-Semitism looks like, sounds like and feels like,” Goodman-Leib said. “We broke up into small groups to role play and to try out what responding to these scenarios would look like.”
The session empowered students with various methods to respond to anti-Semitic situations and ways to decide which methods to use in different circumstances.
“It was awesome that so many adults and students came together to explore these issues,” said Goodman-Leib. “I believe the middle school students walked away with a framework to use in the future.”
For Julia Leyzarovich, a parent in Upper St. Clair who is leading an effort to encourage the school district to find effective and appropriate ways of discussing the Holocaust, the best way to combat these issues is to present a united front.
“The community coming together is going to be our best tool,” she said.
The Words to Action program was sponsored by BBYO, Beth El Congregation, Chabad of the South Hills, NCSY, NFTY, the South Hills Jewish Community Center, Temple Emanuel of South Hills, USY and Young Judaea.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.