‘Here we are’: Zionist teens stand with Israel at Club Z’s annual conference
Some 165 high school, college students meet in L.A. for annual gathering dedicated to a fallen U.S.-born Israeli border guard
Their faces painted with blue and white Stars of David, a group of Jewish students gathered on the bridge over the 405 freeway in Los Angeles on Sunday, holding Israeli and American flags, posters of the hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 and signs reading “Honk for Israel.” The teens were standing up for Israel as participants in the Club Z 2024 National Conference, embodying the conference’s theme: “Hinenu” — “Here we are.”
Club Z, an organization that aims to strengthen Zionist identity in high schoolers, took over much of the ground floor of the Luxe Hotel on Sunset Boulevard over Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, for their conference; meeting rooms and patios were designated as breakout workshop rooms, with many areas doubling as social spaces.
Keeping with the Israel-centered purpose of the gathering, the areas had been renamed — Lt. Col. Habaka, Sgt. Shkoty, Staff Sgt. Levi, Lt. Col. Greenberg and others — in memory of soldiers who had been killed in the Israel-Hamas war. The conference was dedicated in memory of Rose Ida Lubin, an Atlanta-raised Israeli Border Police officer who was killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem on Nov. 6.
During keynote speeches, the entire group — the 165 participants, from ninth graders to college students from over 25 cities nationwide — gathered in the ballroom at the Luxe to hear speakers such as retired British Army officer Col. Richard Kemp, an outspoken critic of the international community’s position on Israel; Dor Shachar, who had been born in Gaza but who fled to Israel and converted to Judaism; and comedian Joel Chasnoff, an American who moved to Israel and served in the Israeli army as a lone soldier, writing a book about his experiences, The 188th Crybaby Brigade.
During a candid “Ask Me Anything, War Edition” session, Kemp fielded hardball questions. In response to a query about trading terrorists for hostages, Kemp said the issue of whether to prioritize the return of the hostages or the destruction of Hamas is “the only real division in Israel.” Asked about which presidential candidate he thought would be better for Israel, the colonel said that President Joe Biden is not his favorite leader, but has been more supportive of Israel than he expected. Still, Kemp said, former President Donald Trump was “better suited to the position,” and the teens cheered.
Jennifer Bukchin, a high school junior from Palo Alto, Calif., initially joined Club Z because her brother had joined and, she joked, her mother forced her to.
“It’s the secret saying of Club Z,” Bukchin told eJP, “that ‘Club Z is the best decision your mom has ever made.’”
Bukchin spent much of the conference on-stage as one of two student emcees who had been chosen by Club Z leadership to model the teen-led approach that powers the organization. But she also remembers the first time she attended a Club Z event.
“I walked in and everything was ‘Israel, Israel, Israel,’ ‘Jew, Jew Jew’ and I didn’t have that strong of a connection to being Jewish,” Bukchin said. “I’m pretty secular. [But] I became very interested because they started talking about history, but also history in the context of identity, what it means to be Jewish.”
To explain further, she cited a metaphor from former Birthright Director Avraham Infeld about the “five legs” that make up a person’s Jewish identity: memory, family, covenant, Israel and Hebrew.
“Even if you take away one leg, even if you take away two legs, this is still part of your identity,” she said. “For example, that I don’t know any Hebrew doesn’t make me any less Jewish than the next person. I found that very important, and honestly very empowering because not only did I not feel as Jewish because I wasn’t as religious, but I have blond hair and blue eyes, so I also felt like I didn’t look that Jewish.” The metaphor helped her feel more confident, she said, and “solidified the fact that I was Jewish.”
Club Z was founded over a decade ago as an after-school program for unaffiliated Jewish teens in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are now seven Club Z chapters nationwide: Brooklyn and Westchester, N.Y.; Livingston, N.J.; California’s Bay Area and East Bay; and Charlotte and the Triangle Area, N.C., and the majority of students, like Bukchin, attend public schools.
“Jewish teens are embroiled in a war right here on U.S. soil,” said Club Z founder and CEO Masha Merkulova in a statement to eJP. “They are in the fight of their young lives, facing unprecedented hate and misinformation in school and online. The Club Z National Conference is the apex of our work throughout the year, educating and preparing teens to confront the lies and inspiring them to be unapologetic Zionists who display their Jewish pride for all to see.”
Bukchin said that one of her most memorable conference conversations was with Shachar, who only speaks Hebrew; a Club Z alumnus who spoke Hebrew translated for her. “The way he carried himself and talked to me was amazing,” she said. “One of the best experiences of my life [was] hearing all of these speakers,” she said, which included a Nova Festival survivor. “It was heartbreaking, but also a very celebratory time in my life where I could not have felt more grateful, could not have felt prouder. Without Club Z, I wouldn’t have felt this anywhere else.”
Looking to the future, Bukchin said that professionally, she intends to study business and wants to have the resources to continue doing Israel activism. While she has never visited Israel, she plans to. “I know I’ll fall in love with it,” she said.
“I will never stop fighting for Israel,” Bukchin said. “Israel’s never going to leave my heart.”