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How a recent wave of anti-Semitism is affecting Jewish teens

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today is the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration known as the Festival of Lights. The eight-day holiday symbolizes a journey of finding light, of finding hope in the darkest of times. By many measures, this has been a particularly dark year for antisemitic incidents in the U.S. The year was marked by antisemitic comments from high-profile celebrities and athletes. And according to the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish civil rights organization, there have been over 1,500 reports of harassment, vandalism and violence directed against Jews nationwide this year. Just this week in the D.C. area, antisemitic graffiti was found at a high school in Montgomery County, Md.

We wanted to know more about how that growing wave of antisemitism has affected the Jewish community, and we particularly wanted to hear from a new generation of Jewish young people on this issue. Hannah Rubin, Ben Fitzpayne and Jaia Wilensky are three high school students from just outside of Washington, D.C., and they're here to talk about being young and Jewish and how they've been thinking about this difficult moment. Hannah Rubin, Ben Fitzpayne and Jaia Wilensky, welcome to the show.

HANNAH RUBIN: Hi. Thanks for having us.

BEN FITZPAYNE: Thank you.

JAIA WILENSKY: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Hannah, I wanted to start with you. You're very involved in advocacy work. You've lobbied on Capitol Hill, and you're part of the national chapter of Jewish youth. You're also a senior in high school, and, like so many other students, your high school experience was partially remote because of the pandemic. I just wonder what that time was like for you and whether you were able to stay connected to your Jewish community and these activities during that time.

HANNAH: Yeah, it was really a crazy time for me and for everyone, but I was able to connect with my Jewish community. I was with my temple virtually almost every Friday night, and I just loved kind of being by myself and exploring my own Judaism alone, whereas normally, everyone was together. I loved just being alone with my thoughts and with my Judaism.

MCCAMMON: Ben and Jaia, I wonder if each of you could tell me just a little bit about what the Jewish community means to you.

JAIA: So I am half African American, and my mom is Baptist Christian, and then my dad is white and Ashkenazi Jewish. I'm - and still I'm raised Christian and then have my Judaism be a big part of my culture. And so within, like, my household, we have a kosher household - you know, so separate meat and milk dishes for everything. And then I have celebrated all of the holidays with my dad's side of the family who live in the area every year. And around, I think, sixth grade, I started going to the synagogue with my parents. It's been a really important part of my identity.

MCCAMMON: And how about you, Ben?

BEN: Well, I've never been the most observant of Jewish people. Like, I did the whole - I went to Hebrew school every Sunday. I got bar mitzvahed. I go to services. But I think, like, the most important part of Judaism for me is, like, connecting with people, like, within my culture. I think that's super important and super valuable for me. It's a good way to connect with my family. It's a good way to connect with friends. I go to a school where there's a lot of Jewish people, and it's a good way to connect.

MCCAMMON: Recently, a lot of antisemitic messages have been shared on platforms like Twitter, including by pop culture icons like Kanye West, now known as Ye. And as we mentioned, we also see local incidents from time to time. So I'm wondering, have each of you been following these conversations? And if you have, what has it been like for you? Hannah?

HANNAH: So I am very active on Twitter and on social media. And since the Kanye thing, since the whole Elon Musk thing, it's been very disturbing to see so much antisemitism and so much hate being spewed. And with this new policies and with this new CEO, Nazis are being unbanned. They're being suspended for maybe 10, 12 hours before they're allowed to come back. And so it's disturbing to say the least. And I live about five, 10 minutes away from Walt Whitman High School, which is where antisemitic spray paint was put on literally yesterday. And to see stuff like that in my community and all around places that I love, it's harmful and scary.

MCCAMMON: And, Jaia, what do you think?

JAIA: I think for me, for a long time, I was kind of, like, sitting in a bubble. But then I think as I've, like, learned and read more about what's happening outside, it's been a little bit of, like, a culture shock to see just, like, how rampant antisemitism still is.

MCCAMMON: Ben, how are you thinking about that?

BEN: I agree with both of you guys. And I think the most concerning thing for me is in that, one, like, that Kanye West is posting antisemitic rhetoric. It's the amount of people who are either agreeing or just, like, minimalizing what he's saying. I also am not incredibly surprised. Like, outside of my school, I've been in various settings, like, very, like, where Jews are, like, a very small minority. People do, like, really screwed up stuff as a joke, I think, when it comes to Judaism. Like, the amount of Holocaust jokes I've heard is mind-blowing, really. I've seen people do the Nazi salute, like, while I was there and then be like, oh, it's just a joke. That's when we need to realize stuff like this leads to stuff like what happened at Walt Whitman High School. I think they spray-painted Jews are not welcome, and we need to, like, realize we can't minimize this antisemitic behavior.

MCCAMMON: Jaia, I wonder if I could ask you. You've mentioned being both Black and Jewish. How do you think about the intersection of those two identities?

JAIA: I don't know. It's hard for me to say that, like, sometimes I'm, like, just Black or just Jewish because I've always been both. And it's always, like, been more of like an additional group, as opposed to just being both of them. It's definitely been interesting. I feel like, growing up, for a big part, a lot of people have been playing what I call or what I've heard as called Oppression Olympics and kind of judging the two. And I think that's something that's always been, like, a little close to me, as someone whose family and myself have been affected by both of those sides. And so I've always been very against the idea of comparing people's traumas and people's histories.

And I think in terms of kind of what Ben was saying in terms of, like, Kanye West, because, for many people, he was such a huge figure to the Black community, that also has, like, added an extra layer. But I also think that even before these specific remarks, I had already actually weeded him out of my playlists because of his remarks on Trump and his remarks on the Black Lives Matter movement and slavery in general.

MCCAMMON: Ben, you were recently elected president of your school's Jewish Student Union. What kind of conversations are you having there and with your Jewish peers about this?

BEN: I think in the Jewish Student Coalition especially, we've been talking about the rise of antisemitism and strategies for dealing with that within our own school. Some ideas we've had - we've had the idea for the Holocaust Awareness Day assembly. We've had ideas to speak with history and English teachers to talk about how to integrate Jewish people into the curriculum because we've noticed that a lot of the time, like, people make really, like, offensive jokes about historically antisemitic tropes. I feel like if we had a better education surrounding why it's not OK and, like, the historic issues with it, they would occur less often.

MCCAMMON: Hanukkah starts tonight. First of all, happy Hanukkah. How are you all feeling about it? And if you celebrate, I wonder if you could share a memory.

HANNAH: I'm feeling not so - nervous, but, like, not so excited about it because Hanukkah is a very special holiday for me. I have a lot of really nice memories of my whole family gathered around a menorah and just lighting each candle and then accidentally, like, singeing a hair or something. It's a little nerve-wracking for me just 'cause I want it to be like it used to be. But also, there's so much antisemitism around my community. And I just want people to see a menorah and not think, oh, the Jews. The Jews are doing this, the Jews are doing that, the Jews are - there's a war on Christmas. Why can't we say merry Christmas? So I just want to be able to say happy holidays and not have someone yell in my face saying, oh, it's merry Christmas. I don't know. I just want to be able to say, like, happy Hanukkah or something.

JAIA: I don't know if I have a specific memory per se, but I have a favorite photo that's, like, a photo of my dad holding me when I was, like, I think about, like, 4 months, 3 months old for my very first Hanukkah and, like, helping me light the candle with all my family around.

BEN: I like Hanukkah. I'm not ashamed. I like presents. I'm not ashamed about that. I mean, I like when my entire family, like, and some of your friends over, like, comes around and lights a menorah and does the blessings. I think one of my favorite parts of it is that the vast majority of the people we invite over for Hanukkah cannot sing. So it's always a little fun listening.

MCCAMMON: Just one last question. Does the holiday hold any different kind of significance for you this year, you know, as a way of celebrating your Jewish culture, given the ongoing antisemitism that we've been talking about?

HANNAH: Definitely for me, it feels a lot more of, like, a protest than a celebration - a protest of the antisemitism that goes on, a protest of not being able to celebrate life and light as we normally can.

JAIA: Yeah, no, I definitely agree that I think this one is a little bit more important to me in the sense that I really - I think this year I'm, like, so big about making it a priority and making sure that we're all coming together and that we're all doing everything that we normally do. And I think how our house is set up, we have - in our living room, we have - like, in the corner is our Christmas tree. And then, like, right next to it is the table that we always move stuff around to make the Hanukkah kind of section. I really like that. It's right at a window. And so as you're driving past, you see the menorah lit up. And I think that's always been really important to me, just to - as, like, a marker kind of as you're going, that this is a part of my family and a part of our household.

BEN: Yeah, I think connection is a huge part, especially this year. Like, connection to the broader Jewish community, but also just to our families and saying, like, yeah, it's rough right now. But also, like, we're together. You know, we're all OK. And this is like, we're celebrating. I think that's super important.

MCCAMMON: We've been talking with Ben Fitzpayne, Jaia Wilensky and Hannah Rubin, all three local Jewish teenagers from the Washington, D.C., area, speaking to us about their experiences growing up Jewish as antisemitism is on the rise. Thank you again for joining us. And once again, happy Hanukkah.

JAIA: Thank you.

HANNAH: Thanks for having us.

BEN: Thank you. Happy Hanukkah.

MCCAMMON: How do you say it? Chag sameach?

HANNAH: Chag sameach.

MCCAMMON: I'm trying (laughter).

JAIA: You got it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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