Several weeks ago, this office was approached by a distressed mother of a seventh grader in a local, public, middle school. Her child had experienced a series of deeply anti-Semitic acts perpetrated by perpetrated by about six fellow students – from various different grades.
While not violent, the acts the child experienced were egregious acts bullying and overt anti-Semitism. There were frequent references to the Holocaust. Students would pass the Jewish student, preforming the Nazi salute and cry, “Seig Heil.” One student made reference to Zyklon B. Another student chanted, “Exterminate the Jews.” Half-a-dozen swastikas, carved into desks and walls, were found in classrooms.
The mother had approached the school’s administration. She was assured the incidents were wrong, egregious even, and was repeatedly told the situation was, “being handled.” The mother was assuaged and comforted her child. Yet then there was another incident, and another. After nearly a year, the mother felt she could no longer be assured by the school’s admiration. She turned to the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, and was referred to its Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) for help. The JCRC sprang into action.
We met with the mother and subsequently arranged a meeting with the school district’s superintendent and his senior staff. We brought in partners from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC). We shared our perspective of the situation and ensured appropriate steps (disciplinary measure, suspensions, and discussions with parents) were being taken.
We facilitated brining ADL programming into every middle school in the county – alongside and in partnership with the VCIC programming. We also offered the school district resources from within the Jewish community, including access to Virginia Holocaust Museum, Jewish Family Services, Richmond Jewish Coalition for Literacy and curricular support around Judaism, Holocaust studies, Israel and anti-Semitism.
Weeks later, feeling progress may have stalled, we requested another meeting. Our concern were well received. We were offered resources from the county and the superintendent’s office to help the child cope emotionally. We stepped up and advocated for a Jewish child in Richmond who was facing anti-Semitism. Handling this matter on behalf of the Jewish community strengthened our relationship with the superintendent’s office. We share the goal of a safe and fruitful educational space (and community) for every student (and individual) in the region.
Regrettably, this is not the first time this year our JCRC has taken such steps. The long-reported rise in hatred and anti-Semitism at the national level is very much here – in Richmond – too. This is one example of where a JCRC – the central public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, which handles government affairs and represents the Jewish community on many critical issues – is critical in keeping our community safe. Our success in this story was thanks, in part, to the relationship this office has previously established with the superintendent and his senior staff. This is the power of Federation.
This will be my last column as director of Jewish community relations for the Federation. In the near future, I will stepping away from this role and joining the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as the Southeast States Area Director. AIPAC is a bipartisan organization of US citizens committed solely to strengthening, protecting and promoting the US-Israel relationship.
While I am excited to be taking this next step in my career, I am sad stepping away from this post and my role in the Federation. It has been a privilege to serve this community and I sincerely hope our paths continue to cross. Shalom.
Please refer questions and comments to Daniel Staffenberg, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, at Daniel@JewishRichmond.org or 804-545-8622.