Peoplehood, solidarity and teen engagement in wartime

One of the most inspiring yet little-noticed moments of November’s March For Israel in Washington, D.C., was the preshow, when the main stage was turned over to the teens who gathered on the National Mall by the thousands. Masterfully choreographed by the Jewish Federations of North America, RootOne, an assortment of youth movements and teen leaders themselves, the moment left a burning question: How do we keep young people engaged? 

As educators and peoplehood professionals, we recommend nurturing a personal relationship, demonstrating solidarity and bearing witness. These actions are both accessible and apolitical, and they offer the insulation and comfort young Jews need as they confront wartime spillover effects. As scholar and community leader Laura Shaw Frank has argued, engagement provides “succor” and affords young people a cushion from “the cruelty” of antisemitism and a world that seems less welcoming. 

Manifesting mifgashim

Started in the early days of the global pandemic, One2One was created to pair Israeli and North American high schoolers to share their parallel experiences in the two epicenters of modern Jewish life. In normal times, the program has proven to be an impactful and enjoyable cross-cultural encounter. Now, in wartime, a program like One2One, which is conducted in English, offers North American teens a way to leverage interaction as first aid. 

The experience of over 7,000 participants proves the “virtual mifgash” (encounter) model works. Skeptics who worried about “Zoom fatigue” or language barriers completely missed the mark. As Alon Friedman and Jeff Solomon argued during the pandemic, there is no reason why young people from the Diaspora and Israel cannot be paired online within a framework that strengthens their Jewish literacy while nourishing personal and professional interests.

One2One pair produce a memento of their mifgashim (encounters). Courtesy/ENTER: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance

The program has positive ripple effects for families and communities. In Israel, where participants are recruited through public high school English programs, teachers have overwhelmingly embraced the program’s pluralistic Jewish peoplehood framework. In North America, the pairings give families a deeply personal connection to Israel. The abstractions of a distant conflict fade into the background. “My daughter has been speaking with her [One2One] pen-pal… since Israel was attacked,” one parent told us, asking what they can do to support the Israeli family. 

For many North American teens, the aftermath of Oct. 7 has put them in unfamiliar territory as they navigate surging antisemitism, questions of identity and expectations around Jewish solidarity. Nurturing a relationship is an opportunity for North American teens — just as it is an opportunity for their Israeli peers — to forge authentic, personal connections.

Demonstrating solidarity

A second action teens can take is to join in solidarity gatherings. Dozens of [solidarity gatherings] have sprung up in the weeks since Israel was attacked on Oct. 7. Many are deeply reverential and wholly apolitical.

Take, for example, the Empty Shabbat Table project, inspired by a display in Tel Aviv on the first Friday after the war began. In Washington, D.C., a spur-of-the-moment action on Oct. 13 near the U.S. Capitol has turned into a weekly Friday ritual involving dozens of volunteers and viewed by countless thousands of visitors to the National Mall. Another weekly vigil in Washington takes place every Sunday at the Red Cross. In Los Angeles, dozens gather every Friday near Beverly Hills City Hall to light candles in honor of the hostages held in Gaza. 

These and other solidarity displays have sprung up in every Jewish community and volunteers are continuously needed, especially now as the emergency grinds on into its fourth month. Even the simple gesture of donning a solidarity necklace or a solidarity bracelet is a form of meaningful engagement.

Bearing witness

Teens can also take action by bearing witness and meeting face-to-face with hostage families and with Oct. 7 victims. Israelis are desperate to be heard, and these encounters are edifying. They leave an indelible imprint. 

Listening is learning. It is also empowering. Bearing witness does not require a financial commitment — sometimes the price of admission is just showing up. JCCs across North America have taken up the mantle, as Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America, recently described, and so have Holocaust museums, which have long facilitated intergenerational dialogue. In mid-December, when a 16-year-old survivor from Kibbutz Holit visited Los Angeles, the local Holocaust museum’s teen board came together in fellowship. Rotem, the young survivor, was eager to interact with peers after engaging with mostly adult audiences. Another poignant moment was an unscripted encounter with Mary Bauer, a 96-year-old Shoah survivor, who was his age when she was deported to Auschwitz.

Positive pathways for trying times

Our teens are besieged by damaging content on social media, including Instagram influencers and TikTok “experts” peddling polemics (and products). These calls to action are the antidote, offering authentic engagement with Israelis and like-minded peers and community members, in peoplehood-infused and apolitical settings. 

Young people need to be informed, no doubt, and credible sources of news and information are more important than ever, but active participation is just as important as passive learning. Offering teens positive, identity-reinforcing pathways to engagement is more critical than ever before. 

Roei Eisenberg is an Israeli-American educator and serves as the Jewish life vice chair of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. Dr. Scott Lasensky is a senior advisor at ENTER: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance and teaches Jewish and Israel studies at the University of Maryland.