Studying the Arab-Israeli conflict
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Studying the Arab-Israeli conflict

Valley Chabad’s CTeen U program helps high school students answer difficult questions

From left, Josh Lancman, Josh Mayer, and Josh Baskin stand together at the D.C. rally.
From left, Josh Lancman, Josh Mayer, and Josh Baskin stand together at the D.C. rally.

Woodcliff Lake’s Valley Chabad offers a number of programs for children, teens, and adults. The most timely among them is the 14-week Chabad Teen University Israel & Me program.

“We’d originally planned to offer a course titled Jewish Wellness, based on the Tanya, the seminal work on Chabad philosophy by Rabbi Shneur Zalman,” Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, Valley Chabad’s associate rabbi, said. He oversees its Teen Leadership Initiative.

“But that all changed after October 7,” he added. “We knew we needed to switch gears.”

Last year, the CTeen University program, which partners with Yeshiva University in providing two university credits to high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors who complete the program and runs from November 6 through February 12, drew 10 students. But when its content became more directed toward the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise in anti-Israel sentiments on high school and college campuses, and the antisemitic rhetoric that was all over social media at uncomfortably record levels, Rabbi Yosef Orenstein’s classroom filled to capacity,

Josh Mayer of Woodcliff Lake, a senior at Pascack Hills High School, wanted to take Rabbi Orenstein’s CTeen University course last year, but didn’t register in time. “After traveling to Israel this summer with Camp Ramah’s six-week program, I was determined to participate in 2023, particularly with the important changes made to the curriculum,” he said. “The course’s content aims to prepare us in responding, with knowledge and understanding, to the comments or questions raised by our peers.”

“The CTeen University program was originally going to focus on what being Jewish means to you, with units on embracing Jewish identity and becoming a better Jew,” said Josh Baskin of Montvale, a junior at Pascack Hills. “I registered for the course in September of this year and am also glad Rabbi Yosef made the changes he did to the curriculum.

“People are trying to keep politics out of school, but some of our public-school teachers have spoken out in support of the innocent Israelis attacked by Hamas and the casualties resulting from the siege on October 7.

“I think the kids in our Monday night class feel obligated to become knowledgeable about the current conflict,” he added.

“No matter what side you support, it’s important to know that people are able to sympathize and empathize with what you’re going through,” Josh Mayer added.

Josh Baskin took this photograph of the rally on the Mall in Washington on November 14.

Jared Friend of Woodcliff Lake, a junior at Pascack Hills, agreed with his classmates. “While the new curriculum was put together quickly, we are all eager to gain an understanding of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and how what’s happening in the Middle East is affecting our lives here in Bergen County,” he said. “When a non-Jewish friend asked me why the conflict in Israel was happening, I was inspired to become an informative outlet and resource.

“Some of our high school classes offer time at the beginning of class — a safe space to discuss what’s happening, but not everyone’s willing to bring it up.”

Jared is a member of the Student Immigrant Alliance; he said that the Pascack Hills High School club plans a Peace Day during the school’s annual Peace Week, to “honor the conflict in Israel when the student body will wear tie-dyed ‘peace’ clothing.

“While over a third of our class is Jewish, there are students of varied ethnicities,” Jared said. “Donations collected will support humanitarian relief for those immigrants in the most need.”

The three students have found Rabbi Orenstein’s class a bridge connecting old, historic ideas, those upon which Israel was founded, with what Israel still finds itself continuing to fight for today: sovereignty, security, and peace. “Our classmates are motivated to support the goal of unity throughout the Jewish community,” Jared said.

When they’re asked about their plans for college, the young men say they can’t help but be affected by what’s happening on campuses across the country.

“I am looking to attend a college with a large active Jewish population and a strong Jewish climate on campus offered by Hillel or Chabad,” Josh Baskin said. “I am turning away from schools that have reported high rates of antisemitism.”

Josh Mayer plans to take a gap year to participate in a Young Judaea course. He agrees with his friend Josh. “A college that values Jewish unity is arguably more important than it was before.”

“I hope, when the time comes, to be prepared to respond appropriately in an effort to stand up to antisemitism,” Jared Friend said. Both Joshes joined other Valley Chabad teens and members of the Chabad community on November 14 at the March for Israel rally in Washington, D.C. “While there was some anticipatory fear and trepidation, it was a momentous occasion,” Josh Baskin said. He documented the event with his camera, and we reprint one of the images here.

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