Shereen Bhalla, who previously worked at the Hindu American Foundation, is the Anti-Defamation League's new director of education for Northern California, Utah and Hawaii.
Shereen Bhalla, who previously worked at the Hindu American Foundation, is the Anti-Defamation League's new director of education for Northern California, Utah and Hawaii.

ADL’s new hire brings her Hindu perspective to org’s civil rights mission

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Shereen Bhalla, who started May 1 as director of education for the Anti-Defamation League’s office covering Northern California, Utah and Hawaii, knew she’d have to talk about swastikas.

Formerly in the same role at the Washington, D.C.–based Hindu American Foundation, she’s well aware of the unfortunate twisting of a traditional religious symbol for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists into one that signifies hate and trauma and is, for most Americans, indelibly linked to Nazis. It’s something she’s had to discuss a lot.

“One of the biggest nuances of when you talk about the swastika is trying to ensure that people understand the history of the symbol for other groups,” she said. But, she added, it’s also about “being sensitive to the fact that the swastika remains a trigger for a lot of people.”

It’s that type of sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding that makes her right for the role at ADL, which involves going into schools where incidents of antisemitism or other bias have created a tense environment, said Teresa Drenick, interim ADL director for the area.

“With her years of in-depth experience in anti-bias education, and, very importantly, working with schools and school district administrators, [she’s] going to be a great asset,” Drenick said.

At ADL, Bhalla will be responsible for working with schools and teachers to implement ADL curriculum, including specific material for schools that have gone through an antisemitic incident.

Shereen Bhalla (second from right) speaks on a panel at the Interfaith Bullying Prevention Summit, Oct. 2019. (Photo/Courtesy Bhalla)
Shereen Bhalla (second from right) speaks on a panel at the Interfaith Bullying Prevention Summit, Oct. 2019. (Photo/Courtesy Bhalla)

But ADL doesn’t only work on antisemitism. The organization also runs additional general anti-bias training, such as the “No Place for Hate” program, which tackles bias, bullying, inclusion and allyship and can be tweaked to be appropriate for various schools.

“We create content that’s specific to the school, so that when we go into a school to bring whatever workshop it is, we listen to the school and what’s been happening,” Drenick explained.

While Bhalla is not Jewish, she said her status as an outsider to Jewish communities can be an advantage, especially going into schools.

“People will hear me talk about these antisemitic incidents, the seriousness of them, and take it seriously, knowing that, as an outsider, if I’m appalled by what’s happening, that they should be, too,” she said.

Drenick said non-Jewish hires are common at ADL, and deliberate.

“ADL is very intentional about having a staff that reflects the community,” she said. “And that diversity is really, really important to us.”

As an outsider, if I’m appalled by what’s happening … they should be, too.

Bhalla said her experience as a Hindu in the United States has given her an understanding of what it feels like when a community faces ignorance or hate. Her family background, which includes migration from India to Africa to the U.K. to America, has made her aware of the complexities of identity. Her academic experience — she has a Ph.D. in socio-cultural linguistics — involved understanding how children learn in multicultural environments.

Now, at ADL, “I get to take a lot of that and apply it toward working on anti-bias education, which is something I’ve always been a big advocate for,” she said.

Even though the Jewish community is something new for her, Bhalla is going into her new role with an open mind and a commitment to listen.

“I do have a lot to learn about Judaism, and the Jewish culture and aspects of the faith,” Bhalla said. “And I think that that is something I’m well aware of, and I’m looking forward to learning more.”

She also said she’s looking forward to “having a positive open dialogue, respecting people’s opinions, hearing people, sharing facts” — even if it’s about difficult issues such as antisemitism and swastikas.

“I think it’s like talking about any sensitive social issue or sensitive issue for our communities,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.