Teaching teens to Stand Up for Israel
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Teaching teens to Stand Up for Israel

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In 2011, Avi Posnick of StandWithUs and Rabbi Ely Allen, who teaches at BCHSJS and heads northern New Jersey’s Hillel, interact with students at the workshop.

No matter how much they know about Israel, high school students need help preparing for the “inevitable conversations” they will have when they get to college.

“All too frequently on college campuses there are explosions – or at least ripples – of anti-Israel sentiment,” said Jeffrey Salkin, New Jersey regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, whose group has co-sponsored workshops on this issue for the past several years.

“We would not dream of sending kids out into world without their shots, vaccinations, and inoculations,” Salkin said. The purpose of Israel advocacy training “is not to inoculate kids against what they will experience but to provide them with a context for having those conversations.”

Dubbed “Stand Up for Israel,” the next workshop – jointly sponsored by ADL, the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council – is scheduled for February 10 at Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls. The event is geared to high school juniors and seniors.

Salkin expects the workshop to draw about 70 students from a variety of schools and synagogues.

“What’s important about this is that it’s a delicious opportunity for the entire Jewish community to come together,” he said. “I believe all kids need this kind of education.”

Participants will include teachers, ADL staff, and members of the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, as well as Hillel directors and students. Partnering organizations include more than a dozen local schools, synagogues, and Jewish communal organizations.

Salkin would like to see the gathering become an annual event.

“Some campuses can be danger zones for Jewish students,” he said. While “full-blown anti-Israel incidents” are relatively rare, “when they happen, they’re a source of concern.” “Moreover, even when there aren’t blatant anti-Israel demonstrations, sometimes there are more subtle forms of anti-Israel activity, in which the notion of the Jewish state is subject to intellectual micromanagement in ways no other nationality will ever experience.”

Salkin said the purpose of the workshops is to teach students what they’re likely to experience, how they might respond, and what not to say.

“We’re not so much giving them a catechism of history but the mindset of standing up for themselves,” he said. “The ADL has no political dog in this fight. Our issue is simply this: If you want to criticize Israeli policies, go right ahead. Our particular concern is when the needle moves into the red zone and becomes anti-Semitism – when Israel is demonized, delegitimized, and when double standards are applied. We have to teach kids how to recognize this and speak up civilly.”

“Most of our kids across the board religiously are ill prepared to respond to these kinds of challenges,” he continued. “Religious education prepares them adequately to participate in the ritual life of the Jewish people and to have a strong sense of Jewish identity and community. But Israel education has always been problematic.”

Mainly, he said, this is because while we don’t often have to update course materials on liturgy, “we need a constant update on Israel.

“Our kids grow up in an intellectual atmosphere where they’re taught that all truths and all narratives have equal validity,” he said. “One of my mottos is, ‘Don’t let your mind be so open that everything falls out.’ We want our kids to have open minds but also to understand the truth.”

Bess Adler, principal of BCHSJS – a co-sponsor of the event – said the workshop is open to all teens in the county. “We’ve gotten the word out to synagogues to spread the word,” she said, noting that her school has some 50 students in the appropriate age group. “We’d love to have as many as possible.”

Adler said she got very positive feedback from a similar program held last year.

“It’s not just a frontal presentation,” she said. “It gives kids an opportunity to engage in conversation. It’s a nice way of educating kids about what they can expect.”

Adler said that while some students are “very savvy about Israel and about what happens on a college campus, the majority of kids don’t have a clue. To bring it to the fore is very important. I don’t think any of them are prepared to face what goes on [on campus] without a conversation and a chance to discuss it.”

Rabbi Paula Feldstein, rabbi-educator at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, said she will try to get as many 11th and 12th graders as possible to attend the program.

“It is a very important program,” she said. “[Even] those of us who are well-educated about Israel are constantly confused. When our Temple kids go off to college, they have learned a lot about Israel but not enough to be able to talk in an articulate, confident way to people who attack Israel. We want them to understand that Israel is an imperfect place – what place in the world is perfect? – and yet it is their Jewish home, and its right to exist and thrive are crucial.”

Miriam Allenson, speaking on behalf of JFNNJ – also a co-sponsor of the event – pointed out that “our Jewish community’s connections with Israel are a federation priority. We promote that connection in dozens of ways. The kind of program that’s taking place on February 10, where federation brings together forces that can help kids learn how to stand up for Israel, is central to what we do here.”

The workshop will take place from 10:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. To register, go to www.jfnnj.org/jcrc. For registration questions, call Natalya Taleysnik at (201) 820-3944 or email her at natalyat@jfnnj.org. For program information, call Salkin at (973) 845-2821.

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