Jasper Vyda, a junior at College Prep high school in Oakland, giving his TEDx Talk on Sept. 17, 2021.
Jasper Vyda, a junior at College Prep high school in Oakland, giving his TEDx Talk on Sept. 17, 2021.

This Bay Area 16-year-old confronted antisemitism on the TEDx stage

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Whoever thinks fighting antisemitism is only for adults should meet activist Jasper Vyda.

Vyda, a 16-year-old junior at Oakland’s College Preparatory School, has proven himself so outspoken and articulate on the topic that on Sept. 17, he stood on a stage to deliver a TEDx Talk with the potential to reach thousands online. The theme of the event: “A mind aware of what is right.”

If 16 sounds young for activist work, please note that Vyda first became interested in raising awareness about antisemitism at the age of 13.

He said the shooting of worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue three years ago left a powerful impression on him.

It was on Oct. 27, 2018, that a white supremacist entered the synagogue and shot to death eight men and three women ranging in age from 54 to 97.

“I couldn’t keep still in [synagogue] services after that,” Vyda recalled in his almost 14-minute TEDx Talk. “I’d look at exits during services and imagine shootings.”

When his high school organized its own TEDx conference, Vyda decided to participate. Over the course of six months, he researched and refined his talk.

TEDx Talks are shorter than TED Talks — under 18 minutes — and are presented separately from TED conferences. Some have been viewed over 50 million times.

Even Vyda’s talk had been viewed more than 1,200 times on YouTube just a few weeks after it was posted.

It wasn’t easy to prepare, he said. “The first draft of the talk was a discussion on FBI and ADL hate crime statistics since the early 2000s,” Vyda said. “My first idea was to discuss it as academically as possible. Talking about my personal experience was difficult for me.”

Vyda said he’s had antisemitic slurs directed at him online and is aware of swastikas drawn on the walls of a neighboring high school.

In California last year, there were 116 anti-Jewish incidents reported by local law agencies to the FBI. Anti-Jewish incidents ranked fourth behind anti-Black, anti-gay and anti-Latino incidents.

In addition to the Tree of Life shooting, Vyda’s efforts are at least partially inspired by his parents. “I grew up in Oakland with two gay moms,” he said. “Social justice is a value they esteem. I experienced a huge amount of homophobia growing up against my moms.”

In addition to his TEDx Talk, Vyda is participating in the yearlong Global Israel Fellowship program organized by B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. For the fellowship, Vyda will conduct academic research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, interview people in the Middle East and attend programs about antisemitism.

Vyda is also interested in the Antisemitism Education Initiative developed at UC Berkeley, which aims to combat antisemitism on college campuses.

“I saw [Vyda] give his TEDx Talk; my son goes to the same high school,” said Ron Hassner, a professor in the political science department at UC Berkeley and faculty director of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. “His talk caught me by surprise, in all the good ways.”

While high schools now emphasize racial sensitivity training and teach about discrimination against various groups, according to Hassner, “antisemitism training is consistently absent from that training. Traditionally, much of antisemitism came from the [political] right. In recent years, it has started coming from the extreme left.”

Nationally, there were 2,024 known antisemitic incidents in 2020, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That is the second highest number since 2011 and the third highest since the ADL began tracking incidents in 1979.

While Vyda’s efforts are mostly dedicated to fighting antisemitism, he is also active in highlighting discrimination against other groups. At College Prep, he is involved in the No Place for Hate Coalition and the Gender and Sexualities Awareness Club.

“Fighting all hates — it is not a zero-sum game,” Vyda said. “Because of the intersectional nature of hate, fighting against antisemitism is not going against fighting hate of other groups. Hate against Jews is inherently linked to hate against other groups.”

Though antisemitism has been in existence for thousands of years, Vyda is optimistic about making a difference. “Everybody has the power and ability to combat injustice, no matter how difficult it seems,” he said. “It is certainly a foe of staggering proportions. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought.”

Mark Lawton

Mark Lawton is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Chicago.