When word spread about a planned Oct. 30 student walkout from West Orange High School (WOHS) “in support of Palestine,” Jewish students, their families and the broader Jewish community were concerned.
Particularly troubling was the initial wording used by the student organizers who labeled the march “River to the Sea,” which anti-Israel activists use as code for taking back the entirety of the Jewish state.
The response was immediate. An online petition signed by nearly 1,000 people demanded the event be canceled. Calls and emails from uneasy West Orange residents were sent to WOHS Principal Oscar Guerrero and West Orange’s school superintendent, Hayden Moore. School administrators and the town’s mayor, Susan McCartney, met with the students organizing the event to better understand what they hoped to accomplish.
According to West Orange Deputy Mayor Larry Rein, the student organizers said they weren’t trying to support Hamas, but that they wanted to hold a “peaceful rally.”
Rein said that the mayor explained to them that the message they were projecting with the use of “river to sea” wasn’t the message they wanted to send. “They then rewrote their posts about the rally, and took out the ‘river to sea’ reference, but still included wording about Israeli genocide.”
It soon became clear that, regardless of the students’ intentions, the planned event was dividing the community. “The superintendent and the principal were both amazing,” said Rein, “They talked to the students on Oct. 27 and convinced them it was not the right thing to do their event.”
Ultimately, the walkout was postponed.
In a letter, Superintendent Moore thanked the students “for choosing to postpone the demonstration with the aim of ensuring that the message of peace and humanity is conveyed appropriately, without any form of hate speech.”
The concern that the planned rally prompted locally echoes what is being felt on a larger scale nationwide as Jewish public school students report feeling on edge since the war in Israel began.
According to Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO, StandWithUs, an education organization that supports Israel and combats antisemitism, the uptick in antisemitic incidents at public schools in the last few weeks includes “increased numbers of swastikas graffitied on school buildings, harmful jokes aimed at bullying Jewish students and ruthless social media posts.
“Students report being physically threatened, and some have faced physical violence,” said Rothstein, adding that StandWithUs’ high school programming provides guidance on how to address these situations and protect Jewish students and combat antisemitism. It also provides information should legal action be necessary.
One of those places that has dealt with antisemitism in schools since the war began is Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where an Oct. 12 fight between students in the cafeteria was caught on camera. Video of the brawl spread on social media.
Earlier this week, Jewish communal leaders in Cherry Hill met with members of law enforcement and others at the Katz Jewish Community Center to express concerns about antisemitism as the war in Israel continues.
Among those in attendance was U.S. Rep. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) whose district includes Cherry Hill. After the meeting, he told a local TV station that he was stunned to hear that even children in elementary school were reporting antisemitism and hate speech.
Deeni Haas is a program leader for the Jewish Student Union, a project of the Orthodox Union, which operates student clubs in 320 schools across 29 states, attracting more than 14,000 teens. Since the war began, Haas has fielded nearly 30 applications from students who want to bring JSU to their schools; usually she’ll get just a few over the same amount of time.
She has also heard from students in existing programs, some of whom have been called “baby killers” and others who have been threatened with violence. In one case, Haas said, a student even received a death threat and law enforcement had to be brought in to investigate.
“A lot of kids used to think of themselves as very safe,” she said, noting that the last three weeks have changed that sense of security even as schools try to address the concerns about antisemitism.
To make the clubs a comfortable space for the teens, JSU advisers aren’t focusing on day-to-day war stories. “We are focusing on Jewish identity and Jewish unity, and how Jews everywhere are coming together in unprecedented ways.
“For many kids, that’s inspiring and comforting,” the JSU leader said. “It makes them feel less alone and like they are part of something bigger.”