|Ezra Gontownik, right, role plays during communications expert Neil Lazurus’ workshop at the StandWithUs-MZ Teen Spring Conference.|
When Ezra Gontownik of Englewood goes to Columbia University in the fall of 2014, he will be well armed in the fight against Apartheid Week and similar efforts to delegitimize Israel.
As a senior at the Frisch School in Paramus this year, Gontownik was one of about 50 high school students selected for the first cohort of the StandWithUs-MZ Teens Internship Program. These exceptional students are trained to run Israel clubs in their high schools, host speakers and educational programs, inspire others about Israel, and counter misinformation when they reach college.
The project resulted in 80 Israel-related programs, which reached more than 4,000 high school students around the United States.
Gontownik and the other 16 MZ Interns in the East Coast region created iCare, a project to spark conversation about the dangers Iran poses to the United States and Israel. “If you’re pro-democracy, you have to be against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said Gontownik, who filmed interview clips for the project at Frisch.
When Apple came out with a new operating system that didn’t recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on its maps, Gontownik started a petition on change.org and posted it on the MZ Interns’ Facebook page. “In two hours, we had over 700 signatures,” he said.
The youngest of six boys, Gontownik became acquainted with StandWithUs through his mother, Anne, who is friendly with the campus Israel advocacy group’s co-founders, Esther Renzer and Roz Rothstein. He attended some of their events and invited them to speak at Frisch in his capacity as head of the school’s American Israel Student Activism Committee.
When he heard about MZ Teens – financed by the MZ Foundation in California, which works to combat anti-Semitism in the United States and across the globe – Gontownik recently had completed an intensive two-year Write On for Israel program for high school leaders. And earlier he had worked on a school project to print and distribute 10,000 postcards publicizing the plight of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Israel advocacy obviously is a priority for him. MZ Teens seemed a good way to fuel his efforts into the college years. “I figured it would be good to review what I had learned in Write On, and to learn new things and meet new kids from different backgrounds than mine,” he said. After an interviewing process, Gontownik was chosen to represent northern New Jersey.
At an introductory MZ Teens seminar in Los Angeles, Gontownik was one of seven modern Orthodox kids among the 50 new interns. “Most were from public schools,” he said. “I was incredibly touched that prayer services were optional, yet every single person showed up. I realized that someone with a strong affiliation with Israel has a strong connection to Jewish identity, and that was really great to see.”
This summer, Gontownik is volunteering at Bet Elazraki, an Israeli residential center for 240 children who have been removed from abusive or neglectful parents. He then will go to a gap-year yeshiva, Orayta, before starting Columbia.
“The survival of the Jewish people depends on the survival of the Jewish nation, so anti-Israel events on college campuses are not a joke,” he said. “Most people going to college aren’t informed about Mideast issues because they have no reason to be ““ they have no personal ties to it. Israel gets a terrible voice on campus because it gets a terrible voice in the media. For me to bring a personal perspective to these campuses is huge responsibility and privilege.”
Avi Posnick, the regional coordinator for StandWithUs in New York, said that MZ Teens from across the country take part in periodic Google “hangouts” to discuss articles of interest and brainstorm ideas for campaigns.
“Each region of MZ Teens came up with a fun and innovative campaign to teach their peers about Israel,” he said. “The students were given the tools, resources, funding, and guidance to make their campaign a success.”
The West Coast interns created a 22-card Israeli All Stars deck featuring Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion, Theodore Herzl, Hillel Kook, Hannah Senesh, Natan Sharansky, Noam Gershony, Ilan Ramon, Michael Levin, and other heroes of the Jewish state. (The packs cost $5 apiece and can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
MZ Teen Advocacy Program East Coast coordinator Tahli Hanuka said, “Ezra Gontownik was an integral part of the iCare campaign. He recorded interviews for the two Youtube videos and also did research in order to post statuses about Ethiopians living in Israel and U.S. presidents’ relationship with Israel.
“Next year, Maddie Rosen will be our MZ intern at Frisch.”
Gontownik said that although the year-long internship has ended, his affiliation with StandWithUs continues. “Now the alumni coordinator will help me with any programs I want to host on college campus,” he said.
“The program furthered my understanding of the significance of supporting Israel on college campus, and showed me that Jews from so many backgrounds are able to come together despite their religious or political views to defend Israel. That was really good for me to discover.”