In recent years the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has undertaken a significant commitment to teen leadership. Currently, three programs — Diller Teen Fellows, Iris Teen Tzedekah Advisors, and Write On For Israel — are in place, each aiming to excite and engage teens to become active members in the Jewish world and to provide them with leadership skills before they get to college and beyond.
With registration now open for all three programs through May 24 (see sidebar), NJJN editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carroll sat down with six current participants for a wide-ranging discussion of pro-Israel advocacy, the Jewish future, and what teens know that adults don’t. Below is a transcript of the discussion, edited and condensed for publication.
Andrew Silow-Carroll: What is a Jewish leader?
Rachel: A leader is someone who can make decisions, who knows Jewish values, and is able to translate that. At Diller we learned about different community groups. There is your synagogue, the people you celebrate Shabbat with, the people who come to your bat mitzva — or MetroWest, or American-Jewish teens, that’s community.
Coby: I go to Montclair High School. It does not have the biggest Jewish population. What I don’t see is a strong Jewish identity among Jewish teens at the school. We do have a Jewish Student Union, but this year in particular it wasn’t that well run. There is a lack of Jewish identity in our school, and I fear that is going to be an even bigger problem in the future. My friend and I will be copresidents of the club next year, and we’ll work really hard to have meetings at least every month.
Rachel: A Jewish leader has to connect to people and draw them in to feel the connection between here and Israel and their Jewish identity. A Jewish leader knows who their audience is. In Judaism there are so many different sects, so many different people, involved and not. At college I expect to be active, which is maybe something I wouldn’t have done before Diller. Judaism has become a part of me in a way it wasn’t before.
ASC: In thinking about Israel or the local Jewish community, does one or the other take priority?
Olimpia: With Jewish communities like the one we live in, it’s like taking baby steps: one thing leads to another. When I joined Iris, I wasn’t involved in Jewish service, and now service is a big part of my identity. It applies to the Israel situation — just getting involved leads to making a difference. The more you can intertwine the two, the better it is.
Rachel: I think I owe who I am and who I’ve become to this community. So that makes me feel that I owe it to the community to give back. And by give back, it means working with other teens and teaching them all the things I learned. I feel this really strong connection to Israel, which Diller gave to me.
Emily: These programs instilled the feeling and the tools that you can use to give back, whether it be local or Israel. I can’t say one is more important. They both give different but important things.
Jonas: When I go to college, I will try to bring other students into the fold of Judaism and try to get them to become active, and the more active they are, the more support we’ll have for Israel and the Jewish community.
ASC: When you discuss or advocate for Israel, is there room for debate?
Coby: If you don’t know the anti-Israel side, you won’t know the pro-Israel side well enough to argue for it.
Jonas: In Write On For Israel, Gaby and I spoke with Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toumeh and with Peter Beinart, a really liberal pro-Israel supporter whose ideas kind of put him outside the regular community that supports Israel. He believes that we should listen to the Palestinians and work hand in hand with them, and pro-Israel advocates were saying he was wrong and we should just keep our pro-Israel defenses up.
Gaby: [Beinart] started by asking, “Raise your hand if you read a pro-Israel book,” and everybody did. Then he asked if we read a pro-Palestinian book, and literally no one raised their hand. And he went, “How can you possibly argue for Israel if you don’t know anything about the other side?” Which I thought was very good and showed that you really need to know both sides of the argument if you want to defend Israel.
Jonas: In WOFI we read a lot of books and go to Israel for a week to get an intensive look at the Palestinian conflict. We went to the border with Syria, the border with Jordan, to a couple of settlements, and down to Sderot. We didn’t stop at the touristy spots, but just the spots we needed to cover the conflict. And I felt that that part really helped me. Because if I have an argument with somebody about Israel I can say, I was there. That’s primary source evidence.
Coby: In Diller we discussed a lot of issues — from settlements to the entire conflict to the ultra-religious in the IDF. It was very interesting, and I learned a lot and it was a great series of debates on all things Israel.
ASC: What don’t adults get about teens?
Emily: I’m also part of JServe. I am somebody who is really hands-on. As part of Iris, we worked with Darfur refugees [through Jewish Vocational Service]. In general, teens need something more hands-on. Diller touches on this, but you need to really focus on that. You come out with kids who really find their connection and come away as better Jews.
Rachel: Adults think that teens don’t have the ability to do something for themselves. We are given the opportunity in these programs to grow and have all this confidence to do these things. In Israel we run a camp for Ethiopian refugees, with kids anywhere from five to 15. We create the activities. We sleep overnight as counselors. We volunteer with them in Israel. It’s not just one teen. So many of us are empowered, and adults don’t realize it.
Olimpia: But the converse of that is that some teens just don’t care. They are not involved at all. But that’s true for adults as well.
Gaby: That’s why teen programs are so important. You don’t even know you have that interest, and the program gives you the opportunity.
ASC: Adults tend to be pessimistic about getting young people to embrace their Jewish identities or become active Jews as adults. Are you pessimistic or optimistic about your peers?
Coby: I’m both. Coming from a school where there’s a very small Jewish population and the Jewish identity is not strong, that makes me pessimistic. But when I’m part of both Diller and Iris, and I see kids who have such strong Jewish identities, that makes me optimistic. It comes down to whether the kid is interested in Judaism, Jewish life, Israel, period. I think that kind of comes from parenting. You can’t push the Judaism too hard or they’ll want to rebel, but you can’t push too little or they won’t have a Jewish identity. When I was younger I hated Hebrew school, but I really have to credit my Jewish identity to my dad, Sol, because he is such an ardent supporter of Israel.
Emily: I go to Livingston High, where there are tons and tons of Jewish kids, but at the same time, I really don’t get a sense of a strong Jewish identity at my school. I feel very fortunate to have such a strong sense of Jewish identity, because a lot of kids — that’s something that they are missing. Here I feel very optimistic, because I feel so connected every time I go to an event here.
Jonas: If it is a friend talking to you about these programs, they’ll be more interested in joining. I have a friend who isn’t even Jewish, and he kept asking me about it, and I kept teaching him. At one point I had an argument with a Pakistani kid at school, who was yelling at me and asking why Israel was killing innocent people every day. And my friend jumped in and started arguing with the guy, and he won the argument. And afterward I asked, “Where did you learn all that?” And he said, “You taught me.”
Olimpia: Greater MetroWest has the Rishonim program, which brings young Israelis here, and they stay for a year. And they work in the community and go to different schools. I was really lucky they came to my temple, and Gal [Dafadi] ran a workshop every Monday about Israeli teens. For someone who had no connection to Israel, it was amazing and really opened my eyes. And she saw something in me and told me to apply to Iris. Coming from an 18-year-old who I loved and looked up to, of course I was going to apply. And I am so glad that I did.
Gaby: The whole point of these programs is to train you to bring what you learn wherever you are — to your synagogue or school, or start an Israel club. That is the true point of these programs. This is only the beginning of it. This is a great community, but once you’re done you also have to bring it back.