As part of series of positive, proactive responses to antisemitic incidents at their school, five Jewish seniors at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois have successfully banded together to win change and inclusion for Jewish students in the area’s public schools by persuading the local board of education to include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the 2022-23 school calendar as religious holidays. In addition, one of the students has decided to wear a kippah to school to combat antisemitism there.

Their efforts began two years ago when the image of a swastika was emailed to a Jewish student during a school assembly, after a series of swastikas were graffitied on school property. A number of students decided it was time to take action, and a school-wide march was arranged to protest hate and violence of every kind.

Tim Mellman, now a senior, proudly marched alongside his father, Nate, and his rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchok Bergstein, co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of Oak Park. Mellman decided to make a statement of his own. In the days following the incident, he began wearing a kippah at school. “Judaism has always felt like a community to me,” he told “I felt it was almost my responsibility to stand up for my community and for myself after what had happened.”

He said that when sporting a kippah for the first time in public, he felt more than a little apprehension. The antisemitic incident had shocked him to his core. “It wasn’t intended to hurt me personally, but it felt like it was this terrible thing to have happened, and it was very difficult for me to understand why anyone would do something like that. It was the first time in memory that I felt being singled out for my Jewish identity.” But he said that his self-doubt dissipated when he received positive feedback from other students at school.

He said he often gets questions about the “little hat” that he’s wearing on his head. “I take the opportunity to explain that ‘this is a kippah; it’s something that Jewish people often wear as a symbol of our Jewish identity.”

Mellman explains that the nature of antisemitism is that it thrives on anonymity. The antidote to a cowardly act, he noted, is to work on developing personal meaningful connections with others—to provide opportunities for education and exposure and thus put a “face” to Judaism. “When you see someone wearing a kippah, you don’t just see the kippah, you see me. It’s hard to be antisemitic to a person directly to their face.”

Winning Recognition for the High Holidays

It was at that time that he and a few other students noticed a discrepancy in the school’s otherwise inclusive culture. Although religious holidays filled the pages of the school calendar, quintessential Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were nowhere to be found.

“For Jewish students, balancing schoolwork with taking off for the holidays is difficult, to say the least,” said Mellman. “ I usually email my teachers a week or two in advance that I’ll be absent, but I know that I’ll be expected to make up for all the work I missed. Being preoccupied with makeup work generally causes me to fall even more behind and it’s a vicious cycle. This year, it took me about a week-and-a-half to make up for the work that I missed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days that followed.”

Rabbi Bergstein says that Oak Park prides itself on being an inclusive community. The omission of the Jewish High Holidays from the calendar was not something that these students and their parents were willing to take lightly. After about a year of hard work, during which they corresponded with the board, the calendar committee and other members of the school faculty, their petition was accepted. The school administration has agreed to include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the 2022-23 calendar.

They were honored with lighting the first candle at Chabad of Oak Park’s menorah-lighting ceremony for their tireless efforts on behalf of all Jewish students. At the event, they were each given a mezuzah to put up in their dorm room in college next year as Jewish ambassadors to their respective campuses.

“The youth are the leaders of the next generation,” said Bergstein. “They have the ability to effect major change in the world. They are not ashamed of speaking up. They have a cause, and they’ll let people know what they’d like to see. Crouching down or laying low is not going to give us the respect that we need.”

Ania Sacks was one of the five Jewish student activists who attended the menorah-lighting. “It was special to be there with other Jewish community members and celebrate the holiday. People were so happy for us that we succeeded in getting the calendar change passed.”

“Although this is my last year in school,” said Mellman, “I’m proud of the impact that my friends and I have made for the Jewish students at OPRF and for the Jewish community at large.”