For 36 students of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, their extracurricular support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had a special meaning this year.
As members of the Modern Orthodox high school’s AIPAC Club, they were cited by the pro-Israel lobby for doing “an outstanding job over the past year helping AIPAC Early Engagement, by engaging in pro-Israel political activism.” Their distinction was given public recognition at the AIPAC policy conference, which took place March 20-22 in Washington, DC.
The Kushner students, said the AIPAC National Early Engagement Exemplars Award citation, “have embraced AIPAC NGauge” — the group’s social media platform for student activists — have “regular lobbying meetings with their members of Congress, and continue to excel with AIPAC Campus Initiatives.”
“I am very pleased,” said Rabbi Richard Kirsch, faculty adviser to the group, which has been meeting during lunchtime on Fridays for the past seven years.
Kirsch, who is the school’s athletics director and guidance counselor, as well as a teacher of sociology and Judaic studies, shepherded the 36 students through the three-day convention and led them on a visit to Capitol Hill and a meeting with U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11), whose district encompasses Livingston.
The Kushner group, Kirsch said, was “one of the largest high school delegations in the country to go to the AIPAC conference.” In preparation, the students were vocal and active in support of AIPAC, whose stated mission is “to strengthen, protect, and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.”
As part of their club activities, the Kushner students “have contacted our congressmen and senators, have lobbied about the Iran nuclear deal, and circulated on-line petitions for measures in support of Israel,” Hirsch told NJ Jewish News in a March 25 phone interview.
The three copresidents of the AIPAC Group, all seniors, shared their experiences in e-mails to NJJN.
David Goldstein of Edison said that a week before the conference, group members readied themselves by taking part in a “mock conference, where the students would go around the room and hear different speakers speak about issues Israel faces today….”
Jacob Nelson of Livingston said that being at the conference and seeing “over 18,000 people coming together to show support for Israel gave me a feeling of unity and awe.”
At the gathering, David said, he and the other student delegates found “nothing unexpected” in the pro-Israel positions presented by the presidential candidates who spoke — Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Donald Trump, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz.
Jacob said he was glad to note that “each of the candidates — and Vice President Joe Biden — said similar things in support of Israel,” giving him “hope that Israel’s security will not be taken lightly, no matter who becomes president.”
David wrote that he was “pleased” with Clinton’s and Cruz’s speeches and found it “indisputable that John Kasich delivered the speech that was most profound and connected.” But, he said, Trump “focused more on his opponents than on Israel, which aggravated me.”
The third copresident, Shifra Stone of West Orange, wrote that while she personally did “not agree with the politics” of Biden, the vice president “spoke well and was honest about the Iran deal.”
Biden told AIPAC, which opposed the multinational agreement that aims to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, that “Iran is much, much further away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they were a year ago….”
Shifra said Cruz’s speech resonated with her. “Kasich was more realistic in his approach to Israel policy, while Trump had points that were somewhat similar to Cruz’s. Hillary Clinton’s views most aligned with the Obama administration’s stand on Israel.”
Shifra and David wrote that they had contrasting views of Trump, his behavior at the conference, and the walkout by 50 rabbis who oppose Trump’s view on Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and other controversial issues.
“While I understand the desire to protest Trump due to many of his remarks and ideas, the fact is that AIPAC invited him,” said Shifra. “As with any guest speaker, they should be treated with courtesy and respect. I did not walk out when Mr. Trump spoke.”
Some in the audience took offense at Trump’s saying President Barack Obama “may be the worst thing to happen to Israel.” Although others greeted the remark with applause, AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus apologized a day later, saying “unequivocally that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage….”
“I’m concerned with Donald Trump’s pandering and appeal to base and vile instincts,” Jacob said. Referring to those who back Trump for, among other reasons, his having a Jewish daughter and grandchildren (Ivanka Trump converted after marrying New Jerseyan Jared Kushner and just had her third child), Jacob said, “If Trump were Jewish, and his daughter married a Catholic, would it be relevant to anything?”
Jacob said he also doubted Trump’s sincerity. “I felt that Donald Trump may have been twisting his viewpoints to fit those of the crowd. He was previously known to be ‘neutral’ in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but during his speech he seemed vehemently pro-Israel.”
Aside from the Kushner group, the other recipients of the award were the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett Bay Park, NY, and High School Democrats of America.