Montgomery County’s Jewish community is rallying together in solidarity after antisemitic graffiti was found painted across Walt Whitman High School’s entrance sign.
The vandalism — at least the fourth such act since August in Montgomery County — may have been intended to send a chill of fear throughout the local Jewish community. Yet in response, Jewish residents are organizing a nightly menorah-lighting, collaborating with Montgomery County Public Schools to boost cultural competency, working to provide more support to Jewish youth and asserting the importance of living their faith and heritage proudly.
Bethesda resident Leigh Marcus spearheaded the organization of the menorah-lighting, taking place in front of the defaced sign throughout Hanukkah. Chabad of Bethesda and Glen Echo Fire Station also provided key support in organizing the events.
Marcus and her two children, one in elementary and one in middle school, live across the street from Whitman and frequently walk their dog past the school. She said when she told her children about the vandalism, “they got kind of tearful.” The Marcus home is lit up with decorations for Hanukkah, and she said the children begged her to take the lights down for fear of being targeted next.
She said she sees this series of Hanukkah gatherings as a powerful opportunity to show her family the importance of being publicly, confidently Jewish.
“I figured we could come at 8 p.m. every night and just light candles, be together and have a safe space to emote,” she said.
Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah, and well over 200 people gathered outside Walt Whitman High for the first menorah-lighting event. Many county officials and community leaders came to show their support for the local Jewish community, including County Executive Marc Elrich, Superintendent Monifa McKnight, Walt Whitman Principal Robert Dodd and several County Council members.
County Council President Evan Glass and Vice President Andrew Friedson both issued statements of solidarity and pride in their shared Jewish heritage after attending the menorah-lighting.
As principal of Whitman, Dodd said, “I would just like to express my gratitude for the outpouring of community interest, support, concern and willingness to get involved.”
There is enhanced police presence and MCPS security on the campus this week, he said, and his administration is partnering with local police in their investigation into the incident. Dodd said he wants to focus on what the school can do to “ensure our kids have the space and time to process the pain” caused by this incident.
“That kind of antisemitic hate in any form — words, symbols, acts — threatens the safety and security of our Jewish community and our school,” he said. “It will not be tolerated.”
Eliana Joftus is a senior at Whitman and serves as the president of the school’s Jewish Student Union. The graffiti incident happened just days after she and others from the student union taught a lesson on antisemitism to their peers via a virtual Zoom session, as part of an ongoing school-wide series.
Joftus said it was especially scary to feel like the discussion she and her classmates began “obviously upset someone enough to commit this act,” but added that, “I know we’ll be able to bounce back and see the light through all of this.”
Police have made no arrests yet in relation to the act of vandalism.
The principal and school administration at Whitman have consulted heavily with Jewish student leaders, Joftus said, and consistently given them a voice. As president of the Jewish Student Union, she said her mission is to strike a balance between teaching her peers about bias and hate speech, while also “celebrating our prominent Jewish community and pride.”
Susan Bortnick serves as cantor of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Reform Jewish congregations in the country. She helped spread the word about the community gatherings.
Bortnick’s daughter attends Whitman as a sophomore, and Bortnick echoed Marcus’ desire to show her children there are ways to combat antisemitism “by doing something filled with love and celebration.”
“We can fight back through our determination to celebrate our holidays in the way they’re supposed to be celebrated,” she said, adding that the message of Hanukkah is about setting a light during times of darkness.
Increasing education around antisemitism and other forms of discrimination is key to combatting hate, she said. She also emphasized the importance of making space for cross-cultural discussions.
“It’s harder to hate when you know someone on the other side,” she said.
Associate Director Guila Siegel of Greater Washington’s Jewish Community Relations Council said her organization is working closely with senior MCPS leadership to “accelerate the work in which we’re already engaged” by offering more cultural competency training for school administrators, equity staff and teachers.
“If you think that these incidents are becoming more blunt, more graphic, and happening more frequently, you’re not imagining things,” she said. “We’ve seen not only a dramatic spike in actual incidents, but also a coarsening of public communal discourse that allows ever more harsh, blatantly hateful rhetoric to flourish.”
A report from the American Defamation League found U.S. antisemitic incidents hit an all-time high in 2021, with over 2,700 records of assault, harassment and vandalism reported across the country. The number of antisemitic assaults increased by over 167% since 2020, the report found.
Antisemitic rhetoric has been fueled in recent months by public figures like rapper Ye, who posted a series of troubling, violent tweets aimed at the Jewish community.
Siegel said the JCRC is working with the Jewish Social Services Agency to find ways to emotionally support the Jewish students and parents impacted by this incident.
Marcus said while persecution is “nothing new” to the Jewish community, the nationwide spike in antisemitic incidents and rhetoric has been deeply disturbing to her.
“I feel like people are numb to hate. It’s become acceptable,” she said. “There’s a sign that says ‘empathy’ right across the street from our high school. I would just love people to be able to be more kind and accepting. I wish that for the world.”