Jacob Book, 16, adjusted his kippah and stepped forward to face two dozen students, none of whom he knew, at James Madison High School, which he does not attend. He pointed to three friends standing beside him, behind the table with the challah.
“We are here to talk about our lives as Jewish teens,” Book said, “to you.”
He cleared his throat. “Other teens.”
The afternoon in Vienna, Va., marked the 25th time this school year that Jewish students walked into Washington-area classrooms, gymnasiums or auditoriums — during or after class — to spend an hour explaining their faith to non-Jewish peers. The visits take place through Student to Student, an adaptation of a decades-old Missouri program that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington brought to the District last school year in a bid to combat a massive spike in anti-Semitic bullying.
Washington-area schools have suffered a spate of swastika-filled graffiti in recent months — and incidents of anti-Semitic harassment in K-12 schools nationwide quadrupled between 2015 and 2017, according to a study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.
At the same time, some express concern that awareness of the Holocaust may be diminishing. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Americans 65 and older displayed slightly greater knowledge of the genocide than did younger generations.
“We’re seeing a literal epidemic of anti-Semitism,” said Ron Halber, executive director of JCRC. “It has to be fought.”
During trips, Jewish high school students — belonging to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions — discuss topics such as how they celebrate Shabbat, which Jewish holiday is most important (“It’s not Hanukkah,” Book said to surprise) and the Holocaust. Then, they take questions from the adolescent audience, some of whom, said program director Sara Winkelman, have never met a Jewish person.
“It’s like Judaism 101,” Winkelman said. “But from your peers — and that humanizes it.”
The need to “humanize Judaism,” Halber said, also spurred JCRC to begin pushing for a law to improve Holocaust education in Virginia about the same time it introduced Student to Student. JCRC’s legislative lobbying found success last month when the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that forms a committee to revise how the state teaches students about the Holocaust, genocide and slavery.
The legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whose spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky declined to say whether he plans to sign it. Yarmosky promised the governor will “carefully review” the legislation and said Northam “is committed to ensuring a safe, tolerant and inclusive school environment.”
Schools throughout the nation are struggling to handle the outbreak of anti-Semitic harassment, experts said, and to ensure students graduate with a solid grasp of the Holocaust. In many places, Jewish groups are stepping in to help, said Barbara S. Burstin, a University of Pittsburgh lecturer who teaches on the Holocaust and the American Jewish experience.
Often, that assistance has involved lobbying for bills similar to the one just passed in Virginia, Burstin said. Twelve states require Holocaust education by law — a number that jumped over the past few years, Burstin said, largely attributable to the efforts of Jewish organizations and Holocaust centers.
Virginia is one of the 12, though Halber says its required lessons — listed in a state Education Department handout that says students should know the Holocaust is “prejudice . . . taken to the extreme” — lack gravity and detail. Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle noted “the department supports” the JCRC-backed bill, meant to make the state’s offerings more comprehensive.
“This push for Holocaust education has been ongoing — but getting students to talk to students?” Burstin said. “Huh. Wow! I’ve never heard of anything like that before.”
Inside James Madison High, Sam Nunez, 17, listened with arms folded across his Virginia Tech sweatshirt as the four presenters shifted the conversation to food. After sharing their favorites (matzoh ball soup was on three of four lists), the teens summarized Jewish dietary rules and rituals.
Rachel Friedman, 16, raised a blue plastic pack of Oreos: These, she said, are kosher, meaning the cookies were prepared in accordance with Jewish culinary precepts. Those rules stipulate that Jews cannot eat pork or mix dairy products and meat, Friedman said.
“Also, no shellfish,” she said. “So no shrimp and no lobster.”
Nunez, increasingly agitated, could hold back no longer. “Ever?” he interrupted, uncrossing his arms, and most of the room giggled.
Afterward, Nunez said the presentation taught him “new things about Judaism.” He knows some Jewish students at school, he said, but would never have thought to ask about their religion.
This is the power of Student to Student, said Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, which originated the program. The St. Louis JCRC, inspired by an initiative that brought Israeli Jewish teenagers to talk to their American counterparts, launched Student to Student with six presenters in 1992.
Popular from the start, it grew rapidly: Today, the Missouri program involves roughly 120 Jewish teens and reaches 4,000 non-Jewish teens each year, Picker Neiss said. It has also proved effective at fighting hatred — in yearly surveys conducted by the St. Louis JCRC, teachers reported that, after a Student to Student visit, their classrooms saw reductions in anti-Semitic bullying.
Still, no one thought of extending the program beyond St. Louis, Picker Neiss said, until the recent national surge in anti-Semitism. Fueled by anxiety — and two grants totaling $30,000 from a Jewish nonprofit — her organization collaborated with Jewish groups and schools to launch Student to Student in Chicago, Indianapolis, Des Moines and the D.C. area. The ambition, Picker Neiss said, is to spread Student to Student to all 50 states.
“An adult comes, and teens’ eyes glaze over,” she said. “But when they can interact with one another, they just perk up right away.”
The program falls within a long tradition of “what you might call Jewish-American public relations campaigns,” said Hasia R. Diner, a professor at New York University who studies American Jewish history. The campaigns, often waged by faith leaders or activist groups in response to upswells in anti-Semitism, sent Jewish adults into libraries or churches to explain their religion to non-Jews.
One came in the 1920s, amid heightened activity of the Ku Klux Klan, Diner said, another during Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in the 1930s, still another during the 1950s. In the 1980s, Holocaust survivors began traveling the country to share their experiences in concentration camps — although that effort is ending, as survivors die or grow too old to continue.
There is “no real sense” of the efficacy of these initiatives, Diner said. Today’s landscape of anti-Semitic harassment, she noted, may suggest they were in vain.
“But I’m glad to know of Student to Student,” she said. “Teaching people how wrong their prejudices are, catching them young, with the young . . . maybe that works.”
The stint at James Madison was Book’s third time participating in a Student to Student presentation. He often wonders, afterward, how his words affected fellow high school students. Most seem curious, Book said, eager to learn.
One response he will never forget.
At a presentation last month, Book began by telling the audience that he is Orthodox and attends a private, all-Jewish school in Rockville, Md. He joined Student to Student, he said, because he believes hatred will subside if Jews and non-Jews get to know each other. Near the hour’s end, a student raised her hand.
“She asked me, why do I go to a Jewish school if I’m so interested in teaching about Judaism?” Book said. “Why am I keeping myself in the bubble?”
Book did not know what to say. The silence stretched, so he blurted that it’s nice to be around people who “share the same morals” — but that, Book felt, was not quite right.
He has thought more, since. He still doesn’t know the answer.