This article originally appeared in The Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Written by Luke Tress.

(New York Jewish Week) – About three weeks after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, a parents’ group that advocates for New York City public high school students unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attack and demanding support for students and staff facing antisemitism.

The resolution by the Citywide Council on High Schools came in response to the Hamas attack and subsequent reports of swastikas in schools, but the bigotry it condemned did not seem to abate. Ten days later, a pro-Palestinian student walkout saw young people shouting epithets against Jews and Israel, and chanting in support of an intifada. Then, on Nov. 28, an unruly protest targeting a Jewish teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens sparked an uproar.

“It clearly showed that that resolution wasn’t strong enough and that those resources were not being provided,” said Rachel Fremmer, the council’s second vice president. She added that the resolution, which passed on Oct. 30, had garnered a lot of pushback in public comments.

So last week, the council tried again: It passed another resolution, by a vote of 7-1, demanding more concrete measures. Those include antisemitism training for school employees; a task force including representatives of Jewish groups that will monitor efforts to fight antisemitism; a hotline to report antisemitic incidents; data collection on in-school hate crimes; and the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes some criticism of Israel.

The council, which acts as an advisory board of sorts to the city’s public school system, is one of several advocacy groups raising the alarm about antisemitism in high schools as anti-Jewish hate crimes have spiked citywide in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack. While public discourse on antisemitism in schools has largely focused on college campuses, a series of activists say that the same trends are manifesting in New York City’s high schools, and that City Hall has been slow to respond.

Hard data on antisemitic incidents at New York City public schools is not available, but concern about the issue is not limited to volunteer groups or parents. On Nov. 30, the federal Department of Education’s civil rights office announced that it would investigate New York City Public Schools over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia — a step it has generally reserved for college campuses.

“We’re hearing from parents and families daily about the hate that their children are facing in schools and they’re scared,” said Tova Plaut, a staff member for Manhattan’s District 2 school district, who helps train teachers and plan curricula. Plaut is a co-founder of the New York City Public School Alliance, a group formed in the wake of the Hillcrest incident to combat antisemitism in the city’s schools.

“They worry about the future,” she added. “Not just the future of their children in the school system but also the children who are graduating from the school system with these ideologies.”

New York City Public Schools Chancellor David Banks has acknowledged that antisemitism is a problem at the schools he oversees and told CBS earlier this month that “we have to take action.”

“Many of the adults in our schools also shy away from these kinds of politically fraught topics because no one wants to be accused of being anti anything, and yet we have a responsibility to our kids that we do this,” Banks, whose department declined New York Jewish Week requests for an interview, told CBS. “People are treading very lightly here but they’ve got to know that you can’t put your head in the sand. We’ve got to have those conversations for everyone.”

Banks said he was considering setting up a hotline for students and teachers and was scheduled to hold a press conference on countering antisemitism earlier this week, but the event was canceled. A spokesperson for the school system said Banks would instead be engaging with stakeholders directly, and did not respond to a request for further information.

That engagement appears to be happening. Banks said he has met with school administrators to discuss antisemitism and the New York Jewish Week has confirmed that Banks or his office have discussed antisemitism with a series of Jewish organizations and public officials. Those include the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the Jewish Education Project, Plaut’s group, acting Israeli consul general Tsach Saar and the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus, a group of conservative city lawmakers.

Several of those groups said the chancellor had been supportive of Jewish students and understanding of their concerns. Others are hoping for more from the city’s education department. Plaut said the canceled press conference and the “lack of a proactive response raises serious concerns regarding his commitment to eradicating antisemitism in our school system.”

Her group has demanded that the school system adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, take a zero-tolerance policy toward antisemitism and restructure how schools address diversity and inclusion so that those programs cover antisemitism and Jewish heritage.

The Israeli consulate said it had pushed for a zero-tolerance policy for antisemitic incidents and for education on topics including the Holocaust, antisemitism and the modern history of Israel.

Republican New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, an outspoken critic of anti-Israel activism and a member of the Common Sense Caucus, said City Council members had also demanded repercussions for teachers and students engaging in antisemitism. She added that they want to see educational programming to address the issue, including lessons on the Holocaust, citing polls showing widespread ignorance about the Holocaust among young people in the United States.

Vernikov said antisemitism in schools was something she had “been hearing about for a long time,” and added, “Jewish students are getting bullied.”

For years, Holocaust education has been the centerpiece of the education department’s effort to combat antisemitism among New York City youth. In 2020, the public school system piloted a program that brought groups of eighth and 10th graders on tours of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust museum in Lower Manhattan.

That program is ongoing, with approximately 5,000 students visiting the museum every month, the museum told the New York Jewish Week. Educators from the museum also visit classes in 20 schools and accompany them on their visits, the museum said.

Richard Carranza, who headed the city’s public schools from 2018 to 2021, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2020 that the student tours of the Museum of Jewish Heritage were about “understanding that symbols have meanings.” Referring to swastikas, he said, “Don’t use these kinds of symbols if you don’t know what they mean.”

The museum told JTA that since Oct. 7, some teachers had reached out ahead of visits to tell the museum that students had been making antisemitic comments. In response, the museum is creating a glossary of antisemitic tropes and terms with historical context. It will also give future groups of visiting students anti-bias and de-escalation training.

“We know we cannot teach them everything they need to know in a single visit, but the hope is we spark something in them to continue to learn,” the museum said in a statement.

Now, some Jewish educational professionals say schools should address antisemitic incidents by discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more directly. Sharon Jacker, the director of the New York Education Initiative at the Jewish Education Project, said the massive scale of New York’s school system — with 1 million students in over 1,800 schools — makes system-wide changes difficult.

She encouraged individual schools and teachers to tackle the subject, though New York State education standards do not include guidelines on the modern geopolitics of the Middle East. Jacker said she’s found that teachers are reluctant to engage such a fraught topic, and two public high school students told the New York Jewish Week that none of their classes discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, said the students, who asked to remain anonymous, their peers formed their opinions based on social media and conversations at home.

“Teachers are smart and they see around them that this is a can of worms, it’s fraught,” Jacker said. “And if you don’t have to open a can of worms and get a parent upset or a student upset or an administrator upset, it’s just much easier not to.”

Jacker, who has met with Banks since Oct. 7, said teachers should discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in class and use primary sources that explore the conflict from “a really balanced, nuanced point of view.” She recommended materials from the Institute for Curriculum Services, an affiliate of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council that provides educational resources on Jewish history.

Teachers may already be addressing the conflict in their classrooms. A Jewish teacher who has taught at city public schools for two decades, and declined to give her name for fear of professional repercussions, said that since Oct. 7 her colleagues have worn keffiyehs, or traditional Palestinian headscarves, to work; put up pro-Palestinian messaging in school and worked the narrative into classes such as literature and social studies.

“I can tell you they won’t look at me anymore. My colleagues won’t talk to me anymore. Not all of them, but some of them,” she said, adding that she has not expressed support for Israel while at school. “I don’t wear any pin of Israel, I don’t have a flag. The only thing is I’m Jewish.”

School policy bans teachers from engaging in political activity in school, but the rule wasn’t being enforced, she said.

“They’re getting very skewed information,” she said of the students. “I don’t know if other people are not aware of it, I don’t know if they’re looking the other way.”

Rabbi Rena Rifkin, who works with about 250 middle and high school students as the director of youth education at the Reform Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, said that Oct. 7 had “opened the floodgates,” and made students more aware of persistent antisemitism, but that school hasn’t given them tools to cope with it.

“I’m concerned that our students don’t have a safe haven to process what they’re seeing and hearing, and what that means for them to feel so targeted,” Rifkin said.

To find that space, some students are turning to extracurricular Jewish groups at their schools and beyond, some of which have themselves had to contend with antisemitism. The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Student Union, which has chapters in 30 public high schools in the New York City area, said two of its clubs in Brooklyn had been harassed with anti-Israel rhetoric. The group sent JTA a photo of a swastika drawn on a stairwell of one of the schools. A member of another club was bombarded with hate messages on social media.

Most clubs have around 30 students attending on a weekly basis, said the group director, Rabbi Yossi Schwartz, who added that they saw an uptick in attendance after Oct. 7. Schwartz said he prefers to focus on the way participants are expressing their Judaism positively — by lighting Shabbat or Hanukkah candles, for example.

“We mourned, we not understood, but processed, what happened, and now we need to move on to the next thing,” Schwartz said. “Yes, it’s a scary world out there, there’s no question about it for a Jewish person, but we don’t fight back by hiding.”

Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz runs programs at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue that teach teens about Israel, criticism of it and philanthropy. While a range of voices are calling on schools to more proactively address antisemitism, Kaplowitz cautioned that Jews should not depend on the education system to provide care for students’ Jewish identity.

“If we rely on the media, public schools, private schools to deliver what should be a part of our kids’ Jewish education, they’re going to do a terrible job at it,” she said. “And they’re going to leave our kids lost.”