Their own Israel stories

Their own Israel stories

iCan conference provides local high school students with ways to explain and connect

A shot from a video shows members of the teen committee planning the conference.
A shot from a video shows members of the teen committee planning the conference.

Lots of Jewish teenagers love Israel, but they’re not always sure why.

They know that it’s part of their heritage — and they may or may not know a great deal about that heritage — but they’re not always sure that they’d know how to explain how the modern-day country of Israel fits in. They’re uneasily aware that they might have to defend Israel when they get to college, but they’re not exactly sure how to do that.

They have to be able to tell their own Israel story — and of course to tell that story, first each one of them has to know what his or her own Israel story is.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey wants to help.

On Sunday, March 18, the JCRC will offer the second annual iCan conference. From 10:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, the teens, gathered at the Dwight-Englewood School, unsurprising in the city of Englewood, will talk, eat, laugh, and think about Israel. And during part of that time their parents also will be given a chance to consider what Israel means to them, and to their kids.

Donna Weintraub of Haworth is an active member of the federation’s board, and Ariella Noveck is the JCRC director. Together, the two are in charge of the conference, and of the teen council that is putting it together.

“We have been working with a group of kids who come twice a month,” Ms. Weintraub said. They’re high-schoolers who come from across the federation’s catchment area, and they’re from public schools, yeshivot, and secular private schools. “It’s a wonderful pluralistic group,” she continued. “There are about 40 all together, and there are at least 25 at each meeting. And they don’t rush to leave when it’s over, and that’s amazing.

“Our goal is to help the kids find their own Israel story,” she said. To put it formally, as the mission statement does, “our goal is to equip the students with the knowledge and confidence to be able to converse constructively on Jewish and Israel-related subjects. We provide a format for these students to explore their Jewish identity and their personal connection with Israel.”

For example, she said, if you are a student whose passion is science, or engineering, or any of the other STEM subjects, certainly you can connect to Israel through its high-tech wizardry. But if your passion lies elsewhere — in the arts, say, or in history, or in food, or in any other of a vast range of areas — you still can find many strong emotional connections to Israel, and “be able to speak on a point of knowledge in reference to your interests.”

The students who make up the committee come from at least 15 high schools, she said, and “it has been really interesting for the kids who don’t have much of a background on Israel and also for the ones who have much more of a ackground to learn from each other.

“There is zero hierarchy in the room,” she continued. “They sit in a big U, and they pretty much all speak. And we are very careful to move the conversation around the room.”

There will be content providers at the conference — there are nine listed so far on the conference’s webpage,, including StandWithUs and the David Project and CAMERA — but “I haven’t found anything that’s right- or left-leaning, in the way that we’re presenting it,” she said. “We have been very clear that this conference isn’t about telling people what to think. It’s for them to find their own connection to Israel, and also to learn to distinguish the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel.

“It’s very much not to tell them what to think,” she repeated.

“We haven’t been discussing issues with them. That’s not our objective at all. If we could answer the underlying issues simply, there wouldn’t be an issue. Because if it were simple, we would have peace.”

She is heading into the conference with the understanding that “you can’t just have facts. Facts by themselves mean nothing if you aren’t passionate about what you are saying, or about your connection to those facts.

“This is the kids’ heritage, but it has to go beyond just heritage. They must find their own connection to it, so that when they are no longer in the bubble of their home environments, Israel is still something that they feel passionate about. Because you build relationships around the things you love.”

Ms. Noveck talks about it with huge enthusiasm, and as she talks one word comes up constantly. Interactive. This is going to be an interactive day, she says and repeats and says it once more, just in case.

“It is a real day of interaction,” Ms. Noveck said. “It’s not that you sit in your chair and listen.” And through that interaction, she said, the participants learn leadership skills. “It teaches you how to lead a room, and how to be heard in a precise way. It teaches you skills that you don’t realize you are picking up.”

“We will start the day off with two guys, two rabbis, the Map Guys,” she said. “One is Reform and one is Orthodox. One is to the right and one is to the left.” And that’s not just their shtick, she added; it’s their real beliefs. “It’s the icebreaker — and it’s completely interactive.

“And at lunch we will have a dais with a panel with four college students from different colleges, students who have dealt with things that happened on campus. They’ll talk about what happened and how it was solved.”

Next, there will be three workshops. “One is about how to be an advocate for Israel, and what to say. It’s interactive.

“One is about how to combat anti-Semitism and BDS through the use of social media. It’s pretty cool — and it’s interactive.

“The last one is the art of making friends, and how to make coalitions with people of other religions. You’ll learn that you’re not really that far apart. And — guess what? It’s interactive!”

During those workshops, parents will be invited to a session in which they’ll be “coached in how to coach their kids — I really don’t like the word teach here — about how to deal with different things on campus, and in life,” she said.

There are many things that students can learn from this conference, Ms. Weintraub and Ms. Noveck said, and many things that the students on the committee already have incorporated. One, the most basic, is how to talk about Israel, and another is a set of leadership skills that can be useful in a wide range of situations.

And then there is the pluralism, which Ms. Noveck saw at work in a touching vignette. “There was a Torah Academy of Bergen County boy who saw that a public school girl was sitting by herself, and he said ‘Can I sit with you?’ It was so beautiful. If not for this committee, they never would have talked to each other. And they have so much in common.

“It is good to seek common ground.”

What: iCan Conference

Where: At the Dwight-Englewood School, 315 East Palisade Ave., in Englewood

When: On Sunday, March 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For whom: High school students (and also, in a separate program, their parents, from 3 to 5)

How much: Free

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