by Mimi Stern and Rachel Fraade
At the Passover Seder a week ago, we asked ourselves, “Why is this night different from other nights?” But now, as we sit here writing about the MZ Teen iConnect with Israel Conference a couple of weeks ago, we find ourselves asking, “Why was this conference different from all other conferences?”
The MZ Teen iConnect with Israel conference took place on March 30-April 1st at Capital Camps & Retreat Center in Waynesboro, PA. Nearly 100 people gathered together for a weekend to deepen our knowledge about Israel, build community, enhance our leadership skills, and develop a strong voice in support of Israel.
We both came to the MZ conference for different reasons. One, Mimi, as one of 48 teens from across the country involved in a brand-new national leadership program called the MZ Teen Israel Internship, and after spending the year in the program, learning and creating informational posters for Hebrew schools and summer camps; and the other, Rachel, as Hanefesh USY Regional Israel Affairs Vice President, who really just wanted to see her best friend. Between the two of us, we had attended innumerable Israel programs: through USY, community, AIPAC Policy Conference, and a semester in Israel as sophomores.
The conference met and exceeded our expectations. We were thrown headfirst into a situation where we were no longer teens to be lectured at, but equals who were capable and eager of using a vast array of knowledge to educate and advocate for Israel. We were taken seriously, and represented a new generation of active, interested, and passionate Israel advocates. Our past experiences with Israel advocacy programs fell into two categories: either we listened, or we talked. Either there was an adult authority lecturing us, or it was a purely peer-based dialogue. This was the first conference at which there was a mix: the adults and peers educating us were the same ones with whom we engaged in conversation mere minutes later. This created a community of mutual learning, where each individual recognized the countless perspectives and experiences of those around them, and the way in which they came together to form a vision that, though messy, somehow worked.
The topics of the programs at the conference spanned from Israeli culture to map lines to the ethics of American involvement. We were given opportunities to voice our opinions, and to learn the different perspectives – from Israeli emissaries, MZ Greenspoon college interns, and countless pro-Israel organization representatives. Our interactions with these individuals, some of whom were only one year older than us, gave us a more tangible insight into the kind of leaders that we have the potential to become – in the next five years of our lives, not just the next twenty.
Our relationship with Israel is, and has always been, a complex one. Coming from public schools – one in southern Connecticut, and one in central Florida – we have had our fair share of debates about Israel. Our families raised us to be staunch, yet thoughtful, supporters of Israel, an outlook which has often contrasted sharply with the apathy and even opposition of those around us. We have been taught that it is crucial not only to love and advocate for Israel, but to not turn a blind eye to its shortcomings. This conference epitomized these views, providing for us in sessions the exact values that we have expressed time and time again in conversations, essays, and school newspaper articles.
This conference strengthened the way we see Israel not emotionally, but rationally. One of the most crucial things in the fight to win support for Israel is not to sugar-coat reality, and not to present Israel as a utopian society where nothing is ever wrong. If we are to support a modern nation such as Israel, we have to face the facts. And this is what was so special about the MZ Conference this year: we not only faced the facts, but we worked through them.
Mimi Stern is from Maitland, FL and Rachel Fraade is from Weston, CT. Both girls are seniors in high school. Mimi has been involved in the MZ Teen Israel Internship throughout the year and recruited Rachel to participate in the conference.