Bill Nye the Science Guy has said, “If you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time.” Sara E. Brown, director of the American Jewish Committee’s new San Diego Regional Office, offered a corollary to that statement when it comes to antisemitism.
“Yes, if you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time — but I’m really optimistic, and I’m optimistic because of our young people,” Brown said. “Today’s students, they’re sitting in our classrooms right now and they are engaged, and they have this limitless capacity for learning. They’re tomorrow’s leaders, but they’re leading already. They give me a tremendous amount of optimism.”
In early March, the New York-based AJC announced Brown as the head of its 25th U.S. regional office. Brown previously served as executive director of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education; managed post-secondary education programming for the USC Shoah Foundation; and taught courses on history, human rights, and mass violence around the globe, including at San Diego State University.
Brown’s background in education significantly informs her new role with AJC.
“I know that for me, a personal passion is going to be getting involved in our local schools and helping them to address some of the challenges that they’ve had to face around antisemitism, around anti-Israel bias, but also just a lack of resources, and being able to support them in a way that is proactive and celebrates the contributions of our public school,” she said.
Brown described AJC’s mission as “enhancing the wellbeing of the Jewish people and Israel, advancing human rights and democracy…both in the United States and around the world.”
While she maintains optimism about the fight against antisemitism, Brown also acknowledged the extent of the problem. Pointing to several findings from AJC’s The State of Antisemitism in America Report 2022, she noted that 41% of American Jews feel that the status of Jews is less secure than it was a year ago (up 10% from AJC’s previous study).
Nearly 4 in 10 American Jews surveyed said they have changed their behavior out of fear of antisemitism, including by avoiding publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying items that might identify them as Jewish (23%); avoiding certain places, situations, or events out of concern for their safety or comfort as a Jew (16%); and avoiding posting content online that would identify them as a Jew or reveal their views on Jewish issues (27%).
Additionally, 67% of American Jews reported seeing antisemitic content online or through social media in the year leading up to the survey. However, Brown suggested that “social media platforms can also be used as a new set of tools for combating antisemitism and hate and fostering allyship.”
Inaugural Event Features Mayor Gloria
Holly Huffnagle, the AJC’s U.S. director for combating antisemitism, presented the organization’s survey at the “State of Antisemitism” event on March 30 at Congregation Beth Israel in La Jolla. There were about 250 people in attendance at AJC San Diego’s inaugural event — no small feat, considering that the event time coincided with the Padres’ first game of the season.
Mayor Todd Gloria gave remarks and presented a slideshow of photos from his recent trip to Israel with mayors from around the country as part of the AJC’s Project Interchange. This summer, Project Interchange will send another delegation to Israel — consisting of elected officials in California, including from San Diego.
The launch of the AJC’s new regional office, according to Brown, came after “members of our community recognized that there were these sustained, and in some instances rising challenges facing the Jewish people. And they really got to work, not just brainstorming amongst themselves possible solutions, but also reaching out to partners across the community — and eventually decided that they were going to open a new AJC office here in San Diego.”
“What I really appreciate about what they did was they did this thoughtfully, they did it diplomatically, they did it in conversation with the community and in collaboration with the community,” she said. “They put in a tremendous amount of groundwork to ensure that AJC would be coming in and offering new value added and complementary approaches.”
While the AJC is a global Jewish organization, the San Diego office was established with the goal of having a local impact, Brown added.
“There is so much that can be done at the global level, but really the idea here is that we’re going to harness some of those successes in the global arena to inform our local efforts,” she said. “Then also, I’m anticipating that we’re going to have this really successful initiative here in San Diego and that will in turn have a direct and real impact on how we’re doing work globally.”
In May, AJC San Diego will celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, but will also work to build community more broadly by marking Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
‘Education and Dialogue ’
When asked about last October’s incident at Carmel Valley Middle School, where a seventh-grade teacher had posted a Hitler photo on a classroom wall display next to photos of revered leaders, Brown emphasized that her approach to advocacy is rooted in education and dialogue.
AJC San Diego, she explained, plans to work “in ways to support existing capacity and ensure that there are effective responses that keep our Jewish students and children safe, support our community, and then more broadly help our society grapple with [antisemitism] … offering very real, impactful interventions and strategies, and always from a place of advocacy, diplomatic dialogue, conversation. If we’re to the point of yelling, or lecturing, we’ve already lost the conversation.”
“All advocacy is about education,” she said. “Effective advocacy includes education, conversation, and diplomatic dialogue, and knowing when to engage.”
The Jewish community of San Diego experienced 36 recorded incidents of antisemitism in 2022 (slightly down from 38 incidents in 2021), including 26 incidents of harassment (up from 23 in 2021) and 10 incidents of vandalism of businesses (down from 14 in 2021), places of worship, and schools, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit on antisemitic incidents. Nationwide, ADL found that antisemitic incidents surged to their highest level ever recorded last year.
Against the backdrop of today’s challenges, Brown suggested, “The next time you read another headline, don’t just get upset. Get involved with us.”
Jacob Kamaras is editor and publisher of San Diego Jewish World.