Walt Whitman High School choral director Michelle Kim was just getting off the bus following the music department’s spring trip to Florida when Principal Robby Dodd called her over. He’d been awaiting the group’s arrival with a time-sensitive request: Would Kim and the school’s chamber choir perform at an upcoming event to support the Jewish community in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah?
Exhausted and bleary-eyed after 13 hours on the road, Kim jumped at the opportunity. She and her students would have little time to prepare and would likely have to learn at least one Hebrew song, but she knew the chamber choir—the school’s most advanced group of singers—would be as enthusiastic as she was. And she was right.
“We had the option to decline, but I don’t think anyone said no,” says rising Whitman senior and chamber choir member Markian Frykman, who, like Dodd, Kim and the majority of the chamber choir students, is not Jewish. “I think the solemnity of the ask gave it, like, a serious tone and…everybody was like, yeah, it would be…honorable to do that.”
Three weeks later, on April 17, the Whitman chamber choir sang before a packed house at Silver Spring’s Flora M. Singer Elementary School—believed to be the first public school in the nation to be named after a Holocaust survivor. One of the songs the choir performed, Oseh Shalom, is a popular Hebrew song whose title translates as “He Who Makes Peace.”
“The audience was really pleased,” Frykman says of the nearly 200 people who turned out for the event, including dozens of church and civic leaders, as well as members of the Jewish community. “For the people who understood the words, it added to their emotions.”
Across the nation, antisemitism has risen to historic levels, and Montgomery County is no exception. More than half of the 109 antisemitic acts reported in Maryland in 2022 occurred in Montgomery County—a 261% increase over the year before, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and early 2023 reports suggest no sign of waning.
Yet, observers say, the increase in targeted attacks on the county’s Jews has also given rise to something almost as unprecedented: a heightened level of solidarity from non-Jewish groups toward the Jewish community—and promises from many church, civic and school leaders to do even more to help quell the rising antisemitic tide.
Even the Montgomery County Jewish Educators Alliance (MCJEA)—founded in January in response to the rising number of antisemitic incidents taking place in the county’s public schools—counts about one-third of its active participants as non-Jewish, says MCJEA founder Andrew Winter, principal of Rockville’s Ritchie Park Elementary School.
Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the North Bethesda-based Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC), says she has a long list of non-Jewish school, community and religious leaders she considers allies in the fight against Jewish hate. “While I know that there is a tremendous amount of work to do, I’m very, very cognizant of the people who sit in natural positions of power who have the ability to do something and are taking that seriously,” she says.
Over the past year, anti-Jewish acts in the county have included swastikas painted on classroom walls and school desks, threatening emails sent to those of the Jewish faith, flyers left on neighborhood doorsteps warning of Jewish evils, and even physical assault: In January, an elderly Jewish man was attacked in a Gaithersburg grocery store by a young man yelling antisemitic tropes. Court documents show that the assailant’s friends stood by during the attack, yelling, “Do it for Kanye,” in homage to the rapper Ye, formerly Kanye West, whose Twitter account has been suspended since December 2022, following a series of tweets filled with antisemitic rhetoric.
Before his suspension, “Kanye West [had] more Twitter followers than there are Jews in the world,” says Montgomery County Councilmember Andrew Friedson, a Democrat whose district includes Bethesda, Potomac and Chevy Chase. Yet data shows that his comparison is an understatement; the controversial rapper had twice as many followers as there are Jews.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics’ most recent estimates, there are 15.2 million Jews in the world; Ye had more than 32 million Twitter followers, according to Social Blade, a website that tracks social media statistics. Social Blade also reports that the number of Ye’s followers increased after he began posting antisemitic remarks last year.
“Antisemitism is a conspiracy-based hatred, and conspiracy-based hatreds are very difficult to fight because…the response to it can reinforce it at the same time,” Friedson says. “If you don’t call it out, then you are normalizing and allowing antisemitism to fester…but when you call it out, it’s used to prove the conspiracy.”
In November, Friedson successfully lobbied for the county council to pass a resolution to address and combat antisemitism. The resolution passed unanimously but had been delayed several months because of pushback from community groups, including the Maryland office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), over the resolution’s definition of antisemitism. Opponents of the resolution argued that the language used in defining antisemitism would have a chilling effect on criticism of Israel and its policies.
Zainab Chaudry, director of CAIR’s Maryland office, told The Washington Post at the time that the resolution’s definition of antisemitism was “deeply divisive.” Yet following the January assault on the Jewish man in Gaithersburg, CAIR’s Maryland office put out a press release saying it “welcomed a hate crime charge” brought against the suspect.
In the release, Chaudry noted that CAIR had also condemned an antisemitic “Day of Hate” that had been planned earlier this year by neo-Nazi groups, and she encouraged American Muslims to offer support to their Jewish neighbors. “CAIR and the American Muslim community stand in solidarity with all those challenging antisemitism, systemic anti-Black racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and all other forms of bigotry,” the release stated.
“Ten years ago, those statements of solidarity may not have been forthcoming,” Siegel says, adding that much of the support Jewish groups are now seeing from outside the Jewish community comes from decades of synagogues and other Jewish groups partnering with church, mosque and civic leaders in helping underserved communities both locally and around the world.
The Rev. Timothy Warner, of Emory Grove United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, still reflects on the time nearly 20 years ago when a vandal struck several Black churches in upper Montgomery County, painting swastikas and other hate symbols on the sides of the buildings. One of the county officials working on the investigation at the time was a Jewish man, Warner says, who phoned him in tears. “He said, ‘Rev. Warner, I am so, so sorry for this. If you need me to come and sit on your church steps with you, I will do that because I understand what this is like,’ ” Warner recalls.
These days, Warner is an outspoken supporter of the Jewish community. “The history of African Americans and the Jews is very much the same in terms of both the hatred and the enslavement and liberation part of it,” he says.
Historically, Jewish activists have been reticent to focus on themselves, and instead have focused on helping those less fortunate, Siegel says, but “one of our main priorities right now is to…give [those outside the Jewish faith] opportunities to learn more about Judaism. …It’s a difficult shift for many Jewish people to speak out about their own identities,” but without that, we “will not even make a dent in the problem.”
Friedson notes that, “To a certain extent, what has changed [across the world] is the ability for like-minded people to find each other on social media, for people to be radicalized without leaving their house, without going to a meeting. …There used to be secret meetings where radical people used to get together in the middle of the night…now those radical meetings happen every single second of every single day, and nobody has to move in order to let them happen.”
“Jews Not Welcome.” Those words were scrawled across the entrance sign in front of Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School in December 2022. The vandalism occurred just days after a schoolwide lesson on antisemitism, and one day after a swastika was painted at Westfield Montgomery mall, a few miles away.
Less than a week later, Rabbi Michael Safra of Rockville’s B’Nai Israel Congregation received a two-page letter from the Black Ministers Conference of Montgomery County, Maryland. Its subject line: Letter of Support to the Jewish Community.
“The on-going acts desecrating property in the public space and seeking to provoke fear in the Jewish community are acts of wickedness and cowardness,” the letter stated. It ended with the hope that such acts of hatred and violence will unite “the Jewish people and Black people into a resolve to continue fighting until all people can live in love, honor, and respect for each other.”
The letter was particularly meaningful to the Jewish community, Safra says, because “there are so many times when things happen and nobody reaches out—going both ways.”
Safra is part of a group of about 15 rabbis and Black church leaders who gather periodically to discuss the issues that affect both communities. The group, which calls itself Bridge Builders, started meeting over Zoom shortly after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Now they meet in person at churches and synagogues around the county.
“It is an unfortunate reality,” Safra says, “that without these kinds of terrible acts of hatred, we might not bring ourselves together as much as we should.”
Within months of receiving that letter—as antisemitic graffiti was discovered in and around more schools and public buildings in the county—additional emails and letters of support arrived at JCRC’s headquarters, including from Gaithersburg-based Identity, an organization focused on supporting Latino youths.
“Please trust that the Jewish community is not feeling and fighting Jewish hate alone,” wrote Diego Uriburu, Identity’s executive director. “For the Identity community, this struggle is personal, as you, our friends at JCRC and in the Jewish community who are being harassed and assaulted, have stood with us when few others did.”
Uriburu sent the letter in early April, just before the start of Passover, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the freeing of Jewish slaves in Egypt. Outreach followed from other Identity staff inquiring about Holocaust training programs, as well as interest in accelerating a program that pairs Jewish and Latino middle schoolers to build “cross-cultural understanding and the skills necessary to be a good ally,” says Nora Morales, Identity’s program director, by way of email.
Non-Jewish community and religious leaders also have been gathering alongside their Jewish counterparts at events that have popped up following the county’s more publicized antisemitic acts. The Rev. Anne Derse, deacon and minister of community engagement at St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, has attended two rallies and a town hall focused on combating Jewish hate, including one in November, after antisemitic graffiti was found scribbled along the Bethesda Trolley Trail.
“We in the faith community that share values of inclusiveness…have to stand up and support the Jewish community,” she says. “We’re still kind of pulling ourselves together around what specific steps we…can take, but I want to be a part of that, certainly, and I know that there are people in my faith community…that will also want to be a part of that effort.”
At Montgomery County Public Schools’ Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville, “it’s been all hands on deck,” says Tracy Oliver-Gary, the supervisor of the school system’s social studies curriculum for grades pre-K through 12. She and her team of educators spent much of the past school year rewriting the elementary and middle school curricula. Until now, she says, there has been no instruction at the elementary level on anything related to the Jewish experience, and only a brief look at the Holocaust in middle school.
Starting with the 2023-24 school year, the new elementary and middle school syllabi will include more lessons in Jewish history and the origins of antisemitism—which started 1,000 years before the Holocaust, Oliver-Gary points out—as well as more instruction in critical thinking skills. The hope, she says, is that when students come across a video game or social-media post with a hate-filled message, they will learn to ask themselves: ”What do they know about the author? Where’s the author’s bias? Why do they think the author said this? Is it credible or not?”
The new elementary curriculum will also introduce the concept of being an “upstander” (as opposed to a bystander) when one encounters situations involving hate and intolerance. Oliver-Gary says that the goal is to teach students what “hate acts” look like, the harm they do, and how people throughout history have stood together to fight them, “to build empathy so they can have the courage to fight it [going forward].”
As antisemitism started to rise over the past year, the school system was caught off guard—and so was the Jewish community, Siegel says. “Antisemitism waxes and wanes, and we were in a period of waning for several decades.”
Once it started rising, community leaders, and especially school leaders, were stuck playing a game of whack-a-mole, she explains. “Every time there was a swastika, there’d be a response—and, you know, there were more and more swastikas,” she says. Now the school system is working with the Jewish community on a “systemic response, a thoughtful response, a proactive response.”
Oliver-Gary says she recently spoke with an educator on the West Coast who had witnessed a taglike game created by a group of elementary school kids on a school playground. In the game, children were assigned roles of either Nazi soldiers or Jews fleeing them. If the Nazis caught them, they died. Hearing about that game, she says, proved to her that antisemitism needed to be addressed in the curriculum before middle school.
“You start seeing things that are small, a little speech here, a little act here, and people don’t pay attention to it and then it becomes normalized, and more and more people do it and people get targeted even more,” she says. Kids need to understand that “when they start seeing the seed [of hate], before it grows, before it blossoms fully…to dig up.”
“We still live in an inclusive and welcoming community where people are not only tolerant but are appreciative of a diversity of faiths and backgrounds and race and language,” Friedson adds, “but it doesn’t take a majority of people to make places feel unsafe.”
Journalist Amy Halpern has worked in print and television news and as the associate producer of an Emmy Award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.
This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.