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Jewish students, parents at Ottawa's biggest school board share experiences of antisemitism

The OCDSB Board meeting, where delegates discussed growing antisemitism in the school board on May 28, 2024. (Peter Szperling/CTV News Ottawa) The OCDSB Board meeting, where delegates discussed growing antisemitism in the school board on May 28, 2024. (Peter Szperling/CTV News Ottawa)
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Parents of Jewish students at Ottawa's largest school board say their children feel unsafe and unsupported because of growing antisemitism at school.

Six parents and one student delegate spoke at Tuesday night's Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) meeting to discuss the problem, which many parents say has become a "crisis."

"Over the past number of years and especially since Oct. 7, there has been a noticeable increase in antisemitism in OCDSB schools," said parent Naomi Hirshberg. "They have to endure taunts, racial slurs, Nazi salutes and being told Hitler was right."

Leah Freedhoff, a Grade 11 student at Sir Robert Borden High School, spoke before the board virtually. She described having money thrown at her feet, Nazi flags flown in her face and getting hit with a "barrage" of online hate.

It's her second time in two years she has appeared before the board on the same subject, after she pleaded with trustees to take more action to protect Jewish students during the Israel-Palestine conflict in the spring of 2021. She says little has changed for Jewish students since.

"Before Oct. 7, antisemitism was already at an unreasonably high level in your schools. Since October 7, it has become untenable," she said.

"Blaming Jewish people for the actions of a foreign government is not okay. Referring to Jewish or Israeli people as 'baby killers’ is an antisemitic blood libel created centuries ago that cannot be justified by 'it’s a political opinion.'"

Trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth, the only Jewish person sitting on the board, was the only trustee who asked questions to the delegates.

Shira Waldman, who has four children, two currently in high school in the OCDSB, told CTV News in an interview before the meeting that her kids felt significant antisemitism in classrooms starting as far back as 2018. Her children faced harassment because of their identity, including being subjected to references of Holocaust gas chambers and of Hitler returning.

"Peers who would throw money on the floor and say 'your're a Jew aren't you going to pick it up?'" she told CTV News.

Waldman says she even filed a police report against one student, who threatened her child on social media. She says her youngest was forced to transfer schools.

"I faced antisemitism myself in the 80's and I had hoped that my children would never have to deal with that – it leaves lasting scars," Waldman said.

"The school board is not taking Jewish parents seriously and they're not doing enough to protect our kids. Their whole basis is that kids should feel free to identify with who they are, and that doesn't apply to Jewish kids."

Parents at the meeting are asking the OCDSB to establish mandatory antisemitism training for all staff members and for the board to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

"The government has adopted it, now its time for the schools to do the same," Waldman said.

The OCDSB said in a statement Wednesday it has not taken a formal position on the IRHA definition of antisemitism.

"In recent years we have received various perspectives from parents, students, staff and community members regarding this topic," the board said. "We condemn all forms of hate and discrimination against students, staff or members of our community. At the OCDSB, staff are required to address incidents of hate or discrimination promptly, which is outlined in policies and procedures including our human rights policy and code of conduct."

David Sachs, the community relations and antisemitism specialist of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, says antisemitism has become a "crisis" and becoming "the norm" within the Ottawa public school system.

"What we're finding with kids is a universal sentiment across Ottawa that they're afraid to even be known that they're Jewish at their schools," Sachs said.

"What we want to do today is raise awareness and focus the Board of Trustees on antisemitism. I think we have some really good leaders within the system who want to make a difference, but this is such a massive problem and it takes institutional will. We have not seen that from the trustees."

Director of Education Pino Buffone thanked the speakers for sharing their experiences.

"I'd like to start just by acknowledging with reflection and regret the lived experiences that I think that our students our staff and our families continue to experience in a tremendously difficult time, globally," said Buffone. "It is true, as Miss Freedhoff shared online, we are on a learning journey and it is a struggle for us. There's no question about that... It is a work in progress for us. We will continue to work at it and we will continue to reach out to community partners that are trusted for us in providing us with great advice on this very difficult time globally but locally as well."

Ottawa police reported a 19 per cent increase in hate-motivated crimes in 2023, with Jewish residents targeted more than any other group. In early 2023, trustees voted to hire a Jewish equity coach with Brian Kom currently serving in the role.

The OCDSB said it is taking "a number of measures" to address hate in its schools. 

"For example, our training and professional development for school leaders, senior staff and trustees over the past two years has included workshops with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and antisemitism-specific learning delivered by leaders within the Jewish community. This school year, we also launched an ‘anti-hate toolkit’ to train and support staff to prevent and address any incidents. This work will continue into the new school year, including professional learning sessions for staff across a number of employee groups," the statement said. 

"We have also expanded our anonymous Safe Schools Reporting Tool to all schools, so students can report concerns if they do not feel comfortable coming forward."

The school board said it recognizes the challenges students experience related to identity and in recent years it has been working to improve supports for students, such as the introduction of equity-related positions to support staff and arranging identity-based support groups to allow students to connect with one another.

"In addition, we have just conducted our 2024 Valuing Voices: Identity Matters Student Survey of all students across the district. This survey explores issues of identity and school climate. The data gathered will help to address a variety of areas, including safety, bullying, learning and student achievement. Finally, OCDSB staff works closely with faith leaders and community organizations to communicate concerns and navigate challenging situations together," the OCDSB said.

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