“Welcoming the Stranger & Taking a Moral Stand!” – The Young Judaea Way

By Simon Klarfeld

Over the past months, Young Judaea’s teen community, led by its National Mazkirut (teen leadership board), has been engaging with the issue of the refugee crisis and recently issued a statement together with an initial plan of action regarding the ongoing global crisis in order to inspire the community to learn more and take action. This article explains Young Judaea’s overall educational approach to teen education and empowerment within the broader context of educational programs that are run for 5 to 35 year olds.

Young Judaea – the pluralist Zionist youth movement of America – is built on a strong foundation of programs ranging from day camps to post-college programs in Israel, united by a singular set of core values: Jewish Identity, Zionism, Social Action, Pluralism, and Leadership Development.

Recent global events and changes in the way in which we communicate, together with the increased pace of societal change itself, have provided a unique opportunity for our participants to deeply engage in a “real world” context with the core values that we hope to inculcate across the full range of our programmatic activities. The five aforementioned pillars of our mission, each important to the Young Judaean identity, become even more powerful when combined, challenging our chanichim to see the relevance and resonance of the Jewish experience in today’s world.

By fostering a sense of appreciation and love for Jewish tradition and values, as well as pride in and connection to the Jewish people and Israel, Young Judaea’s summer camps, year-round programming and Israel experiences all, in their own way, educate and empower our chanichim. Through participation and engagement, young people are imbued with self-confidence, independence, problem-solving skills, knowledge, and other tools they need to make informed choices for themselves and the communities they will help to shape, and to explore and affirm their own identities.

For children and teens, the development of identity takes place in circles of progression. A child learns about his or her place within the family, then within his or her immediate communities, before beginning to understand identity in a broader sense. Soon after, we encourage them to ask even more important questions: Where do I fit within my identity group, and where does my identity group fit into the world? Our teen-age members, in particular, then address the most complicated questions of all, as they begin to define their place in the world, and explore the avenues they have to make a difference for the better.

How does that play out? Let’s take, for example, the core Jewish value of “welcoming the stranger.” At one of our day camps in Brooklyn or Westchester, NY, where we create warm and welcoming communities of 4 to 8-year-olds, this core value may play out through arts and crafts, where kids are asked to paint a picture based on the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers into their desert tent. The resulting conversation about what it may feel like to be a stranger or an outsider leads to an activity in which the campers think about what it means to be welcoming in a community that values diversity.

For our overnight summer camps in Texas, Wisconsin, New York or North Carolina, which build vibrant communities for 8 to 14-year-olds that are often described as “Little Israels,” the concept of welcoming the stranger is taught in a more advanced and nuanced way, going well beyond the basics taught to the younger kids. It may involve examining times in Jewish history during which we were strangers in various lands, and how Israel was created in part to be a refuge so that Jews would never be “strangers” again.

In other words, as with all good educational approaches, the core values and beliefs of Young Judaea are taught with an age-appropriate approach to content and pedagogy.

So, when it comes to working with teenagers – particularly high school students and those going into college – an even more innovative method is required. They have now reached the age where thinking beyond one’s own community and identity is not only natural, but indeed a necessary aspect of personal growth and independence. Teenagers are ready and eager to understand their place in the world around them, and the concepts explored with younger Judaeans begin to take on a more outward-facing significance.

In the case of the “welcoming the stranger” example, our National Mazkirut – the democratically-elected group of teens who provide peer leadership for the movement – recently began a significant educational process to explore this Jewish concept. Beginning many months ago, at the start of the Syrian refugee crisis, many of our teens became concerned about the ongoing situation, wanting to learn more and find ways to help. With the support of staff, the National Mazkirut led the teen community through a variety of discussions and introductions to communal organizations engaged in the effort. Their ongoing and underlying question was: “How do our values and beliefs – as Jews, as Americans, and as Young Judaeans – inform the way in which we relate and respond to the situation?” They determined that they could not stand idly by, and needed, as a group, to be part of the broader response to this global humanitarian crisis – including, for example, participating in various pro-refugee rights rallies across the country. Just this past weekend, our teens gathered at Young Judaea’s National Convention to continue that learning and debate of the community’s response to key social issues in Israel, the U.S. and the world at large. This educational process is not motivated by politics, rather it is charged by a sense of moral obligation. That educational process and engagement through activism will no doubt continue in our teen community in the months to come.

On our post-high school young adult programs in Israel, participants have a variety of opportunities to put what they have learned into practice – whether choosing to volunteer in a local welfare center in Bat Yam, or interning at a non-profit organization addressing the needs of Israel’s migrant workers in Tel Aviv.

As is the tradition of all quintessential Jewish youth movements, we maintain that for teens, empowerment and leadership development are critical to the educational process and to helping our participants mature into independent, thoughtful human beings, active members of society, and deeply engaged and committed members of the American Jewish community.

Young Judaea has a very proud tradition of inspiring Jewish youth to live active, passionate, and impactful lives. From Young Judaea’s decision in 1963 to march in support of the Civil Rights Movement, to forming the vanguard of those who fought to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and 70s, we have not only created a powerful movement through which young Jews engage with one another, but have nurtured a community responsible for launching an amazing number of leaders and activists in the Jewish world and beyond.

As a pluralist Zionist organization, we do not have a specific political, religious or social agenda. Rather, we are an educational organization using our communitarian values as a guide to provide our students with critical thinking skills, expose them to a broad array of perspectives, and encourage them to develop their own opinions. Above all else, we want to give them the necessary tools to become leaders and activists in the context of our movement’s mission to “… inspire American Jews’ life-long engagement with Israel and the Jewish People.”

As in all programs engaging children and teenagers, the work is never done. Empowering our chanichim to hone their passion and identity in a nurturing environment is a dynamic process in which we are all continually learning and growing. We welcome all to join us in this journey as we support a new generation of teens working to make a difference in the world.

Simon Klarfeld is the Executive Director of Young Judaea. From year-round events, to the Tel Yehudah leadership summer camp, Machon (a summer leadership-learning experience in Israel), and the student activism training on Year Course in Israel (Young Judaea’s pre-college gap-year program), Young Judaea teen programming turns spirited Jewish youth of diverse backgrounds and orientations into engaged leaders and inspired activists with a life-long commitment to Israel, Jewish life and tikkun olam. Learn more about all of our programming, for 5 to 35 year olds, here.