Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue, built in 1759 in Newport, Rhode Island, is America’s oldest surviving synagogue. Courtesy National Park Service

At its May 10 board meeting, the San Diego County Office of Education adopted a resolution proclaiming May 2023 as Jewish American Heritage Month, and offered ways for school communities to observe JAHM.

This is not the first time SDCOE has passed this resolution, which seeks to “honor and celebrate the culture, history and contributions of Jewish Americans.”

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According to SDCOE, “Celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month in classrooms and schools can help students and families feel seen, heard, and valued — and it creates space for all students to learn about the contributions of Jewish Americans to our country’s prosperity and spirit.”

The SDCOE website on Jewish American Heritage Month provides information and background on the contributions of Jewish Americans, as well as some history, noting that Jews first came to America in 1654, fleeing persecution in Brazil.

Today, according to SDCOE, San Diego County is home to more than 100,000 Jewish people, about 3% of all residents.

In addition to celebrating the nation’s Jewish heritage, the county office of education also recognizes the need to “address any barriers or challenges that Jewish Americans may face in their efforts to reach their utmost potential.”

As antisemitic hate crimes have increased dramatically nationwide, with crimes committed by individuals of all ages, SDCOE’s efforts locally are focused on where hate can start and where it can be stopped — in schools.

A recent FBI report found that more than half of religious hate crimes target Jewish Americans.

In its 2022 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents summary, the Anti-Defamation League reported 3,697 incidents of antisemitism in 2022, a 37% increase from the previous year and the highest number on record since the ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

Besides targeting Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions, the ADL report indicated that 494 incidents were reported at non-Jewish K-12 schools, which the ADL said was a 49% increase from 2021.

However, the ADL estimates that the number of incidents is under-reported, “given the insidious nature of bullying, compounded by the fact that many children may not feel empowered to report their experiences.”

Community Uproar

Local schools are not immune to this trend.

Just last week, dorm bathroom walls at the University of California San Diego were “decorated” with swastikas which authorities said appeared to be drawn with fecal matter — which is just about right considering that the hateful symbol belongs in the toilet.

The swastikas that in December 2021 vandalized Torrey Pines High School, in the San Dieguito Union High School District, triggered emotional testimony from students, parents and administrators — all condemning the graffiti. The local ADL also weighed in.

Then, last September it was learned that at another San Dieguito school, Carmel Valley Middle School, a seventh-grade world history class teacher included an image of Hitler alongside positive role models that included Gandhi, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other famous historical figures. 

After a student objected, the teacher, with shocking insensitivity, justified the display by allegedly saying, “Hitler may have done some bad things, but he also had strong leadership qualities.”

A major community-wide uproar resulted, with the ADL and leaders of many other local Jewish organizations criticizing the teacher’s misguided decision to equate Hitler with inspirational figures.

“Images of Hitler in the classroom without proper context can be deeply offensive and hurtful to members of the Jewish community,’ said the ADL in a statement. Not to mention the impression it gave to non-Jewish students.

Making these vile acts particularly egregious is that both Torrey Pines High and Carmel Valley Middle are designated “No Place For Hate” schools.

The No Place For Hate designation is a hallmark of the ADL’s national education department and is a student-led K-12 school climate improvement program that for more than 20 years has helped build learning communities of inclusivity, respect and equity. 

Being a No Place For Hate school means that students and staff are committed to fighting hatred and bigotry.

May 11 was designated No Place For Hate Day by the ADL, which acknowledges the commitment of more than 1.9 million students and 186,000 educators nation-wide who participated this year in the program.

According to the most recent information from the California Department of Education, there are 790 schools in San Diego County. Of those, 118 have been designated No Place For Hate schools, although Rachel Sato, the local ADL’s Associate Education Director, said schools have until the end of the school year to submit their paperwork, so she expects that number to increase.

Educator Guide

To address the lingering, pervasive and sometimes violent bigotry against Jewish Americans on school campuses, the county board of education is offering guidance to schools on how to tackle the discirmination head-on.

SDCOE created an educator guide to address ways to combat antisemitism in public schools, which includes a number of teaching resources, links to various lesson plans, and a list of museums for field trips, in person and virtually, for students.  

Books sorted by grade levels are also listed, for students in grades TK-3, 4-8, and 9-12.

One book aimed at high school students that is not listed, titled The Assignment by Liza Wiemer, is based on a true story and is worth reading, not just for young adults.

When a well-liked teacher assigns his class a project that asks students to argue from the Nazi perspective in favor of the Final Solution (the genocide of European Jewry during World War II), two students decide they cannot defend the indefensible and refuse to do the assignment.

Although the teacher says the point is to try to understand how such an atrocity could take place, it instead brings out latent prejudice in many students and forces some to confront their own antisemitism and bigotry.

Besides asking students to take on an assignment that may make them uncomfortable, it also raises the question for students of whether getting a good grade and a positive college referral letter is more important than standing up for one’s principles by confronting a teacher, and risking losing friends in the process.

How many high school students would do this, and risk the consequences?

Liza Wiemer’s dedication in The Assignment speaks volumes: “For all the young adults across the globe who have the courage to speak out against any injustice, even when you are afraid, even when others are against you, even when you have to stand against those who should have been your role models … You are lights illuminating the darkness. The world needs you.”

The San Diego County Office of Education can be applauded for recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month by providing resources for students, teachers and schools to combat antisemitism, increase understanding of our differences, and foster greater appreciation of the valuable contributions every student has the potential to make.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at