Community responds to “Cultural Celebrations” slideshow missing Jewish holidays

Oak Park community members express concern and anger about this exclusion; district responds

A “Cultural Celebrations” slideshow was presented by the Diversity and Equity Task Force as the Friday connect period activity to Oak Park on Oct. 30, comprised of community members sharing holidays and traditions relevant to their culture. Among these cultural events were Diwali, Simbang Gabi, Las Posadas, Dongzhi Festival, Winter Solstice, Homanay and Kwanzaa. However, some raised concerns that no Jewish holidays or cultural traditions were presented.

As parents and community members became aware of this exclusion, some took to Facebook to express their opinion.

“I was very shocked Jewish holidays were not included as the district gives the major Jewish holiday off for all students. I truly don’t understand such a mistake,” Oak Park High School parent Ruthye Havas Kaplan wrote on the Facebook thread.

Community members and parents of students at the OPUSD schools emailed Coordinator for Special Safety and Equity Holly Baxter and others left their remarks on the Diversity and Equity Task Force Submission Form.

“I”m glad you’re starting this new and important curriculum, but there is the glaring omission of Jewish minorities, their history, their contributions to science, medicine … and holidays,” community member Sharon Hartenstein Lehrer wrote on the Diversity and Equity Task Force Submission Form. “Leaving this out continues to perpetuate anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and chronic bullying, amongst other concerns.”

Baxter sent out a statement in several emails to concerned parents and community members, addressing these concerns.

“It is a blessing we have such a varied and diverse student body and family community in Oak Park, and it is always our intention to highlight this diversity and celebrate it and the many, many cultures and traditions of our students,” the email statement read. “The intention of this slideshow was to expose our students to just a few of the traditions that are generally not known.”

Baxter described the process in which she collected information on holidays and cultural traditions from all members of the Diversity and Equity Task Force and its subcommittee and to all students, staff and parents who have reached out to contribute to the conversations concerning diversity and equity at Oak Park Unified School District.

“I’m Jewish. This does not bother me, whatever it is,” community member Len Hochberg wrote on the Facebook thread. “I know … Oak Park [is an] inclusive [place]. What does bother me is when people lump them all together as ‘the Jewish holidays’ or school is closed for ‘a Jewish holiday.’ They have individual names. Never heard anyone say ‘school is closed for a Christian holiday.’”

Historically, Oak Park has been the victim of anti-Semitic activity. In 2010, the Chabad Jewish Center of Oak Park was spray painted with “Get Out of Oak Park.” In February of 2014, former students tweeted and retweeted anti-Semitic tweets on Adolf Hitler’s birthday, resulting in a later lawsuit against the school over freedom of speech. 

In 2017, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department responded to multiple reports of anti-Semitic and Nazi-themed notes, including one found on the same Chabad house vandalized years ago. That same year, the sheriff was called to investigate a hate crime involving a middle school student who yelled “Jews, get off” on the Kanan Shuttle Bus. Even during distance learning, all students were required to change their profile picture as a result of several anti-Semitic “Pepe the Frog” memes used as profile pictures at OPHS.

OPUSD has continually taken action to promote cultural literacy and acceptance. People such as Holocaust survivor Manny Fischman, activist Judy Shepard and the Anti-Defamation League, originally founded to stop the discrimination of Jewish people, have spoken at OPHS about various topics, including strength through adversity, anecdotes on World War II, hate crimes and cultural awareness. Additionally, Medea Creek Middle School students who are perpetrators of anti-Semitic sentiments are often required to attend the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and do reflection assignments.

Several Jewish holidays and celebrations, including Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, have since been added to the Cultural Celebrations slideshow, which has now withdrawn viewing permissions from the public.

“That’s why we can’t be quiet about it. Even something ‘small’ like this. As a community we can make a difference,” community member Hilla Elbaz wrote on the Facebook thread.