By Brad Sugar
The fascination with “preparing students to defend Israel when they get to college campus” is somewhat bizarre.
Teens are changing the world every day as innovators, entrepreneurs and tech-titans; surely, they can be counted upon sooner than college to impact the local and global conversations about Israel and anti-Semitism in a meaningful way. As much as we’d like to equip teens with the full range of an Israel education “toolkit” right away, however, we need to step back and make sure that we’re providing them with more than information, YouTube links and advocacy handbooks. We must provide them with something even more valuable: guidance.
High school is a period of evolution, one that sees teens mature into their own opinions and relationships independent of their parents for the first time in their lives. The experiences they have and relationships they form during this time will leave intense memories and mold who they are to become, so it’s important that the Jewish community “get it right” when it comes to engaging teens on Israel, or anything else for that matter, the first time. So, while it’s true that there are hateful, anti-Semitic and even violent anti-Israel protests occurring across the country at various universities (and even high schools), we would be wise to initially focus less on the information and tools to combat these events, and more on nurturing the necessary environment for teens to appropriately process them.
Thankfully, many communities, donors and federations across the country have acknowledged this approach and have subsequently begun investing in teens and relationship-driven teen organizations at an impressive level. This investment is cause for celebration, as it finally embraces the notion that our younger-but-not-yet-entirely-independent counterparts also have an important role to play in Jewish communal life. Once seen as a mere intermediate period or placeholder before college (before “real” and important educational conversations of substance might occur), it is clear that the power of the high school years must be harnessed for impact now.
With our nationally recognized model of extracurricular clubs in public and private high schools, Jewish Student Connection (JSC) has learned how to do this effectively. Here are some salient points as the school year begins.
- Create a safe space: Teens want to be heard, but don’t want to be embarrassed while speaking their mind and putting their thoughts out for public consumption – especially amongst their peers. It takes a lot of courage to do this, and we need to reward them with our trust. Because of this, it’s imperative to establish a culture of respect and tolerance. At JSC, we explore similarities and honor differences; this means that our clubs are a forum and platform for expression of all opinions without judgment, as long as they are articulated respectfully.
- Be real: Undoubtedly, we work for various institutions and organizations that often times take stances with respect to Israel, or other Jewish issues. The problem is when such stances interfere with our ability to express our own personal opinions. Teens have an uncanny ability to make spot judgments on the genuine nature of someone’s character, and if you’re simply towing a party line, they’ll see right through you. It’s okay to express personal pride and elation at times over Israel’s accomplishments, as well as our frustrations and anger when she fails. Credibility is of paramount importance.
- Relationships are key: Hosting educational sessions with groups of students is fine for the simple dissemination of information, but the real work is done after these events conclude. Individual follow-up with teen participants will allow for further, in-depth conversation about the subject matter, and demonstrate to the teen that their opinion really matters. The distribution of information is perhaps no longer the most critical element in an educational setting (certainly in informal ones), rather our ability to help teens filter, process and internalize it is key. This can only happen if we are consistently available and approachable to teens during their four years of high school, and hopefully beyond.
- Do not conflate religious and political identities: As a Jewish community, we are fragmented into many denominations, opinions, and identities. The days of neatly falling into one category box of Judaism or Jewish expression are over. As a result, many teens may feel very connected to their Jewish identity but share strong (and possibly divisive) feelings on Israel and the Jewish community that might be considered extreme to some. It’s important to nurture the positive connections that they have with our community, and not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater because of their current perspectives on a particular topic – a perspective that is sure to grow and evolve over time with our guidance.
- Don’t be afraid to learn: We often find ourselves in the humbling position of being taught by our students and teens, when we think it should be the other way around. Many of them have insights and experiences regarding Israel that may indeed shape our own views of the situation – do not discount the importance of these exchanges, and keep your mind open to them.
JSC is excited to consult with partners across the United States to bring public school club engagement to your area. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Sugar is Executive Director of Jewish Student Connection.