Preaching to the choir

Pro-Israel education must start at the high school level.

Israel US flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel US flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Don’t spend so much time with the Jewish students, they already know. It’s the non-Jewish kids we have to concentrate on.” Frankly, about 10 years ago, prior to taking a leadership role at my university to combat anti-Israel rhetoric and then choosing a career in the world of Israel education, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with this statement. I now realize that it isn’t true. In fact, most Jewish students (even those who consider themselves deeply supportive of Israel) do not necessarily know how to stand up for Israel when confronted with the most recent allegations made against the country. One reason is that they are missing basic information. In addition, there are so many conflicting views and opinions in the Jewish community that the pro-Israel choir is basically singing off tune.
Young leaders need to learn how to articulate Israel’s narrative, history and current situation to facilitate richer conversations about Israel with their peers and help dispel misinformation. If Jewish students can’t even address some of the most common misconceptions about Israel, how can we expect them to stand up for it?
StandWithUs, a 15-year-old Israel-education organization, began working with student leaders on college campuses shortly after its founding, but soon realized that pro-Israel education had to start at the high school level. Advocates needed to be better prepared before they entered university so they would be less blindsided when confronted by the misinformation promulgated by anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). They needed the tools to combat anti-Israel rhetoric and the confidence to be able to educate their peers and assume leadership roles.
Five years ago, StandWithUs opened a high school department. Its internship is the only year-long program of its kind. It has educated thousands of students, graduated hundreds of interns and sent scores of young leaders to campuses better equipped to face Israel-related challenges. This summer, a new opportunity was presented when the organization received requests from summer camps for Israel-related presentations. The goal was to expose the campers and counselors to the issues that might come up on college campuses, equip them with the necessary tools and education, and help them develop and express their own connection to Israel.
In New York and Pennsylvania, our organization was hosted by 12 summer camps and ran 16 educational programs for 2,500 campers and counselors. They included: Camp Judaea; Surprise Lake Camp; Camp Morasha; Camp Dina; Camp Seneca Lake; Camp Lavi; Camp Ramah in the Poconos; Camp Mesorah, NJY Camps; B’nei Brith Pearlman Camp; Camp Young Judaea; and URJ Kutz Camp.
In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, we presented at Camp Tel Noar; Camp Tevya and Camp Pembroke.
Six of our presentations were in collaboration with former MK Dov Lipman, who inspired students with Israel’s accomplishments and stressed the importance of learning how to stand up for Israel. This was followed by an introduction to Israel advocacy by Paul Friedman, our tri-state area high school coordinator. The teens often lingered at the completion of the session, eager to learn more and inquire as to how to get involved, sometimes even missing camp activities to continue in-depth conversations.
“StandWithUs provided me and the 50 other teens with the facts and logical arguments I might need in the future to be able to combat anti-Semitism effectively... It was comforting to hear how easy it could be to calmly and rationally defend my spiritual homeland,” said Sam Zahn from Camp Ramah in the Poconos.
Associate director at Camp Judaea Leah Zigmond said, “You really succeeded in making an impression on the entire group... I’ll start planning next summer’s [programs] this fall and winter, I hope that we can work with you again next year!”
So why did the organization’s high school department spend the summer “preaching to the choir?” The best answer I can offer is, “Im ein ani li, mi li?” “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Simply put, the choir needs to be informed. The choir is not only the logical first step to education of the masses about Israel, but a vital link in the chain to ensure that Israel’s side of the story is shared on college campuses today.
The author is StandWithUs executive director of high school affairs.