What Moving Traditions has learned about teens and Israel

In the course of developing “Our Next Generation” — the most recent strategic plan for our organization, Moving Traditions, released in 2022 — we learned that many teens didn’t feel they had permission to talk about Israel. They felt they weren’t sufficiently informed about the country’s deep and complicated history, or they were worried that they had an opinion that wasn’t the “right” opinion. As a result, we started asking ourselves and our stakeholders: How can we better support Jewish teens by making sure they can bring whatever is weighing on their hearts to Jewish spaces without fear? How can we do that in a way that also respects the very different mindsets their parents and educators might have?

Curricula evolution: First planned, then accelerated

Israel education has not always been at the center of Moving Traditions’ curricula. For many years, Moving Traditions has provided institutions and individuals with materials that merge social and emotional support with Jewish education. These often incorporate a gender lens, as sexuality, sex and gender are primary lenses through which preteens and teens see the world. We have vast experience in creating safe spaces for teens, teaching them how to feel a sense of wellbeing (shleimut) and caring connection (hesed) and build toward a more just world (tzedek).

With that focus, Moving Traditions’ curriculum previously touched upon Israel relatively lightly. We explored similarities and differences in experiences of homeland in the United States and Israel and issues of Jewish identity and peoplehood, and we incorporated quotes, poems and contemporary midrash by Israeli leaders and writers; but we didn’t delve deeply into Israel education as it wasn’t our primary issue. Not only that, but it was a complicated subject — one that might alienate participants, partners, parents and funders.

Teens participate in a Moving Traditions program for Rosh Hodesh.

Yet even before Oct. 7, we were heading towards change. In November 2022, we invited our board into a conversation about leaning into Israel education, seeking their guidance and guardrails as we embarked on work that was new to us. But the war has accelerated that process. Now, we find ourselves investing significant resources to help teens respond to the war in Israel and Gaza. We have created curricula and webinars that have served 5,000-plus educators and parents since the start of the war. Like many others within the Jewish community and outside of it, we are also grappling with rising antisemitism that has been too prevalent in responses to the Oct. 7 massacre and the subsequent war in Gaza.

We are finding that teens do want to talk, learn and think. We know that as Jewish educators specializing in teens, we need to do more to support them and their parents in this moment and in the years to come. We are still figuring out how to fully navigate the new and complicated terrain. But one of our most important discoveries is that when it comes to teens and Israel, what might be needed most is making them feel safe and welcome in these difficult conversations. 

The extent to which Israel is a part of teens lives

While some Jewish educators and parents can think of little else, teens are still consumed by the already overwhelming experiences of adolescence. In holding these conversations, we simultaneously understand that Israel is not the only thing occupying teens’ minds. 

One of our most compelling anecdotes about this came from a leadership conference we held in early November for Kumi, our anti-oppression teen leadership initiative. Toward the beginning of the retreat, we did a standing thermometer exercise about what pressures teens were facing at that moment, on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). We invited teens to call out what was weighing on them. The first teen to speak called out “Israel,” and went to stand close to the end of the line at what would have been a 9.5. This was a teen who had recently returned from a trip to Israel and Poland. The other teens mostly congregated around 7 on the invisible thermometer. Then another teen called out “AP classes,” and the teens all rushed toward the “10” — one teen joked he would have burst through the wall to go farther if it was an option.

Teens who participate in Moving Traditions come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, and the diversity of their day-to-day environments and social milieus were reflected in the stories they shared. Some who attend Jewish day schools talked about how it felt shocking not to hear any sympathy at all for Palestinian civilians; others who attend public and non-Jewish private schools talked about the challenge of making decisions about which teachers were safe to be open with about their experiences of antisemitism and which they felt would just stand by — or worse. In a conversation about race, a student spoke about how oppressive it felt to have to hide as a Jew in some spaces. At the same time, the student acknowledged the privilege of being able to pass as white, something the Jews of color at the retreat couldn’t do. 

The teens were engaged and spoke with nuance. Overall, they expressed deep gratitude at the retreat that Israel came up organically, that the conversation was not “forced” on them, and that it felt safe to share how they were truly feeling.

In one of the curricular exercises we created shortly after Oct. 7, we encourage educators to go around the room and ask teens: When it comes to Israel, who and what are you most worried about right now? I recently posed this question to 40 teen leaders at a regional retreat for another leading youth organization, one of the most effusive and friendly groups of teens I’ve ever had the chance to speak with. 

Their answers spanned the spectrum: One teen spoke about a cousin who is serving in the IDF in a unit that lost 21 of its members in a single day when Hamas forces fired rocket-propelled grenades on buildings the soldiers were inside; her cousin was one of the lucky ones in the unit who survived. Another student spoke about how the war has changed every day of their lives, as they feared backlash or antisemitic responses to decisions they wouldn’t have previously thought twice about, like wearing an Israeli flag charm on their Crocs. A third teen shared their fears about kids their own age living in Gaza — were they being killed? Could they sleep at night when they hear rockets and gunfire nearby? Would they ever return to school?

These thoughtful and varied answers reflect our broader experience working with teens, particularly the ease with which a group of teens engages with “both/and” thinking — the ability to feel strongly connected to Israel and recognize the devastating costs of the current war on Israelis and on Palestinian civilian life. Most importantly, though, the question clearly communicates to teens that they and their worries will be held with compassion, and that every teen can participate in a conversation about Israel even if they are starting at very different places.

Shuli Karkowsky is CEO of Moving Traditions.