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School board votes to counter antisemitism with new equity coach

David Baker addressed trustees at the OCDSB meeting on Tuesday night, telling them of the antisemitism faced by his son at Sir Robert Borden High School.  (Avanthika Anand/CBC - image credit)
David Baker addressed trustees at the OCDSB meeting on Tuesday night, telling them of the antisemitism faced by his son at Sir Robert Borden High School. (Avanthika Anand/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa's largest school board is closer to hiring a Jewish equity coach to help combat antisemitism at schools.

A unanimous vote by Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) trustees Tuesday came after students used antisemitic symbols, language and gestures at Sir Robert Borden High School last month. Two students face criminal charges.

"[It] is a day I will never forget and one that has changed our family forever," David Baker said on Tuesday night.

He told CBC News last month that his Jewish son was confronted by fellow students in a locker room Dec. 1 with a swastika made of ski poles and a Nazi salute.

WATCH | Baker's message to the board:

Baker, along with dozens of members of Ottawa's Jewish community, attended the meeting at the school board's headquarters next to his son's school to support the proposal. Some wore t-shirts that read "End Jew Hatred" and held signs that said "Hatred is not Kosher."

Antisemitism on the rise

Zone 9 trustee Nili Kaplan-Myrth proposed the idea and it was endorsed by multiple Jewish organizations. A letter and petition supporting it had been signed by about 1,000 people.

The motion put forward by Kaplan-Myrth noted that students and staff of the school board are experiencing "a persistent rise in antisemitic attitudes, discourse and behaviour."

"Antisemitism encountered by students and staff in our schools has been overlooked year after year, despite conversations with trustees and senior staff and reassurances to families and the Jewish community that action will be undertaken," she said at Tuesday's meeting.

Despite the chair's request for audience members to refrain from cheering, claps were heard from across the room when trustees and others spoke in favour of the motion.

Michel Aspirot/CBC
Michel Aspirot/CBC

Kaplan-Myrth explained that the new hire would be the main point of contact for students and staff facing antisemitism within the school board, educate students on antisemitism and the Holocaust and collect data about antisemitic or hate incidents, among other things.

The full-time staff position would be equivalent to those created by the board to advocate for Black and Indigenous people. The coach would be paid around $100,000 per year, similar to other equity coach salaries.

Some trustees questioned the title "equity coach," stating that it might be restrictive as other "coaches" are usually teachers. That discussion was put to rest when trustee members unanimously voted in favour of the proposal.

A binding vote is scheduled to take place at the next board meeting on Jan. 31.

A lack of understanding

Lisa Levitan, founder of the grassroots movement Rise Up! that organized the letter and petition in favour of the proposal, burst into tears when the vote was called.

Levitan, who is Jewish and an elementary school teacher, said she too has experienced numerous acts of hate and antisemitism in her time with the school board.

She said the move to hire a Jewish equity coach is a big win for her community.

WATCH | Teacher, organizer reacts to the vote:

"Today the OCDSB finally said Jews do count," she said. "This is going to change everything."

Levitan said she hopes this move will help combat antisemitism born from a lack of understanding of the lived experience and struggles of Jews.

"Without education, we are nothing. That is why hate continues to exist," she said.

"The OCDSB is now saying we see you, we hear you, we validate you and we are going to help you, and that starts with hiring a Jewish equity voice."