Rebecca Feigelson is moving her son Jacob, 6, from the Oakland school district to Piedmont over anti-Zionist statements from the Oakland teachers union, seen in Oakland on Dec. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Rebecca Feigelson is moving her son Jacob, 6, from the Oakland school district to Piedmont over anti-Zionist statements from the Oakland teachers union, seen in Oakland on Dec. 31, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Citing safety, dozens of Jewish families are leaving Oakland public schools

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Lindsay and Simon Ferber’s kindergartener was very excited about pajama day in November at Montclair Elementary School in Oakland. He planned to wear his new blue-and-white Hanukkah pajamas decorated with menorahs.

But his parents had reservations. “I was like no, absolutely not,” his mother thought to herself.

She and her husband told J. they worried that their son’s innocent clothing choice might inadvertently make him a target for antisemitic comments from students, parents and teachers amid the spike in hatred toward Israel and Jews since the Oct. 7 massacre that started the Israel-Hamas war.

His dad talked him into picking different pajamas.

Since Oct. 27, when the Oakland Educators Association teachers union issued a harshly anti-Israel statement that condemned the “75 year long illegal military occupation of Palestine” and called Israel an “apartheid state” with a government that uses “genocidal rhetoric and policies” against Palestinians, many Jewish parents within the Oakland Unified School District have seriously questioned the safety of their children at school.

“I read that as saying Israel does not have a place in this world, and I understood that meant that Jewish families did not have a place in OUSD,” said Rebecca Feigelson, whose son Jacob was in kindergarten at Peralta Elementary School in Oakland.

The teachers union doubled down on Nov. 6 in condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza by approving a measure by a 2-1 margin that encouraged its members to join the “growing anti-apartheid movement demanding freedom for Palestine.”

On Oct. 31, Feigelson submitted an application for an interdistrict transfer out of OUSD and requested an expedited process so she could change school districts over winter break. In her application she cited student health and safety, one of the reasons permitted by OUSD for interdistrict transfers, and attached a screenshot of the OEA statement condemning Israel as her supporting documentation.

On Nov. 16, Jacob was granted permission to transfer out of OUSD, and a month later, Feigelson was able to enroll him in the Piedmont Unified School District. He started in his new kindergarten class this week.

Montclair Elementary School in Oakland has lost Jewish families to interdistrict transfers since Oct. 7. (Photo/Facebook)
Montclair Elementary School in Oakland has lost Jewish families to interdistrict transfers since Oct. 7. (Photo/Facebook)

Feigelson has joined at least 30 OUSD Jewish families whose requests for transfer were approved between October and Dec. 19 specifically due to issues related to the Israel-Hamas war, John Sasaki, the Oakland school district’s director of communications, said in an email to J. last week.

“It’s bittersweet. I feel like we are fleeing like generations of Jews have fled before us,” Feigelson said in a Dec. 14 email to J. when she found out Jacob had been admitted into Piedmont.I also worry there will be no more Jewish families to fight for fair and equal teachings if we all leave.”

However, she added, “I am looking forward to being in a district that is able to remain neutral and choosing to focus on education and not global conflicts.”

Feigelson noted that her son’s Oakland school had done a good job reassuring Jewish parents that their children were safe and supported, but she isn’t confident other Oakland schools are handling it as well.

“I think it’s a wonderful, small school that’s really, really trying to excel in a somewhat dysfunctional school district,” Feigelson said.

Sasaki defended the district in response to a J. inquiry in mid-December about the concerns of Jewish families and the transfer requests.

“OUSD is a sanctuary district, inside Oakland, a sanctuary city, inside California, a sanctuary state, which means we support all students, families and staff, regardless of religion, heritage, ethnicity, where they came from, or how they got here. We protect all students, and harassment of anyone is never acceptable,” he said in a Dec. 22 email.

“In this time of heightened tensions because of what’s happening in the Middle East, we are regularly communicating to our community, reminding them of our core values of love and support, so it should be clear that everyone is welcome and valued in our schools.”

The Ferbers aren’t convinced. They plan to leave the district too, thinking not only of their kindergartener now, but of his future, too. They plan to put their Oakland house on the market this summer and move to Los Angeles, where they said it feels safer being Jewish.

The demonstrator holds up a sign that reads "Fundraising 4 genocide & ethnic cleansing — SHAME"
A demonstrator wearing an Oakland teachers union sweatshirt protests outside the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Gala in San Carlos on Nov. 5, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“As Jewish parents, we have our perspective, and we just want multiple various perspectives to be welcomed and allowed,” Simon Ferber said of their issues with OUSD and specifically with the teachers union. He added that the OUSD environment feels inflammatory and not focused on unity or peacemaking.

“How do we continue to raise children in an environment that doesn’t believe that Jews have a right for self-determination and a right to exist, and it’s so one-sided?” Lindsay Ferber said. “We feel just so unseen and isolated.”

Since the OEA issued its Oct. 27 statement, Feigelson and the Ferbers have joined private groups on WhatsApp, Slack and Facebook for Jewish parents in Oakland, who share their fears about antisemitism and concerns for their children at school.

“It makes us feel less crazy,” Simon Ferber said.

“I feel like we’re living in two worlds,” Lindsay Ferber said, noting that with the exception of one non-Jewish couple who baked the Ferbers a challah as a gesture of solidarity after Oct. 7, no other non-Jewish parents at Montclair Elementary reached out.

Margot Nijsure and her husband pulled their 11-year-old son out of his fifth-grade class at Montclair Elementary in December and enrolled him in Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, where he began attending this week.

She said it wasn’t an easy decision to switch schools midyear, but the “nail in the coffin” was the unauthorized Dec. 6 Palestine teach-in that teachers at some Oakland schools participated in. Montclair was not one of them, according to Nijsure.

“It was so all over the place. Is it at your school? Does your principal even know? Are they even going to discipline [the teachers]?” Nijsure said. “It was like, OK, well, they did this, what’s next?”

Nijsure explained to her son why he would be finishing fifth grade in a private Jewish school.

RELATED: Legal group seeks to prevent more pro-Palestinian teach-ins at Oakland schools

“As your parent, I’m responsible to keep you safe, and I don’t know that I can keep you safe in the Oakland school district,” she said she told him. Nijsure plans to keep him enrolled at CCJDS through middle school.

Some Jewish parents who seriously considered transferring out of the Oakland schools have reconsidered.

Daniel Windler, who has two daughters in the district, is active in the Jewish parent social media groups. He and others in those forums shared their outrage over the October OEA statement. He grew even more concerned when he read that a teachers union representative who teaches history at Edna Brewer Middle School, where his child Roxy attends sixth grade, voted in support of the Nov. 6 union measure.

Seeing the online chatter about other Jewish families seeking interdistrict transfers out of OUSD, Windler applied for a midyear transfer for Roxy. He felt OK about keeping his daughter, Sammi, in fourth-grade at Chabot Elementary, because the union representatives at her school wrote a strong letter against the OEA statement. He figured he could send Sammi to Piedmont next school year as a sibling transfer.

“Fear had gripped us, and we’d heard all these great things about Piedmont,” Windler said. Roxy’s transfer out of OUSD was approved, and the family toured a Piedmont middle school. Later that evening, though, Roxy told her parents she was happy at Edna Brewer and pushed back on transferring.

Windler reassessed the situation. Roxy was thriving academically and socially at school, and nothing antisemitic or anti-Israel had been expressed by her teachers or peers. Further reassurance came when he learned that her school’s history teachers were solidly against the Dec. 6 Palestine teach-in and that Edna Brewer teachers would not participate. Windler and his wife ultimately agreed to keep her in OUSD.

“On the day of the teach-in, I told her beforehand, I said it’s OK to be exposed to different perspectives on things, but please tell me what you’re exposed to,” Windler said. They’ve since had a conversation about whether a student’s “Free Palestine” pin could be considered antisemitic.

“Not necessarily. It can be, or it can’t be,” he said. “I gave her a whole spiel.”

Even though he’s keeping both daughters in the Oakland district for now, Windler said he still has concerns for their safety, especially for what awaits Roxy in high school.

Ben Siegel, a Jewish father of three children in OUSD schools, is committed to keeping them in the district, despite his concerns and the fact that a number of his Jewish friends have already transferred their children to Piedmont schools.

He said he isn’t deterred by the union members who voted to support the OEA statement and participate in the teach-in.

“I’m not going to let these idiots scare me away,” he said.

Siegel said he reminds himself that his daughter has a “wonderful” kindergarten teacher at Montclair Elementary School, but he worries about his 12-year-old son, who is studying for his bar mitzvah while attending Montera Middle School.

Issac Safier and Rebecca Feigelson, seen at their Oakland home with their children Jacob, 6, and Leia, 3, moved their son from the Oakland school district to Piedmont. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Issac Safier and Rebecca Feigelson, seen at their Oakland home with their children Jacob, 6, and Leia, 3, moved their son from the Oakland school district to Piedmont. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

For his son’s birthday in October, Siegel gave him a Team Israel baseball hat from the World Baseball Classic. His son had been following Israel’s team in the 2023 tournament and was excited to get the blue baseball hat with a Star of David on it. However, Siegel said his son won’t wear the hat to school, given the negativity he’s seen about Israel there.

Siegel added that one of his son’s teachers displayed a “Free Palestine” poster in the classroom with the words “from the river to the sea” in full view.

“A poster calling for, essentially, the eradication of Israel,” Siegel said. His wife submitted a complaint to the school, pressuring the teacher to take down the poster. The teacher responded by putting up new posters with “more inflammatory language,” Siegel said.

Another of his son’s middle-school teachers assigned homework with questions about the Israel-Hamas conflict that Siegel considered inappropriate and inflammatory.

“It certainly has been difficult,” he said of his son’s school experience this academic year.

Oakland isn’t the only city where antisemitic incidents in schools are spurring parents to transfer their children out.

Noa Vaynberg, a Campbell resident who is Jewish and an Israeli native, said she experienced blatant antisemitism at the private Saratoga preschool and kindergarten where two of her three sons attended.

She said the preschool director knew Vaynberg and her husband were the only Jewish parents in the school and pressured Vaynberg to attend an evening prayer event for Palestinians at the church where the school is housed. The couple attended on Zoom.

Vaynberg described a nightmarish evening in which a Presbyterian minister and an outside “expert” on Palestine condemned Zionists and invoked false conspiracy theories about Israelis assisting in the murder of George Floyd, and about Gaza serving as a test site for U.S. weapons through Israel’s military. The minister warned his congregation and the preschool parent attendees against viewing the “Jews of the Bible” and the “Jews of today” as the same people, arguing that today’s Jews have no legitimate claim to Israel as a homeland.

“Our hairs were literally standing up,” Vaynberg said. “Not only what was said was really scary, but the fact that nobody jumped in to do anything other than agree and discuss in a dispassionate kind of philosophical manner.”

Later that night, Vaynberg said, the preschool director asked her what she thought of the event. Vaynberg communicated her shock and horror over what was said about Jews and Israel. The preschool director assured Vaynberg that she understood Israel and Zionists do not represent the Jewish people. Vaynberg reminded her that she is an Israeli Jew. The preschool director responded, “You can’t help where you were born,” Vaynberg recalled.

She quickly pulled her sons, ages 3 and 5, from the Saratoga school and enrolled them at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale in late October.

“We’re very happy,” she said of the move.

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.