My family is really tied to Israel,” said Sophie Shifran, a Marlboro High School sophomore, as she sampled shakshuka, falafel, and Israeli candies at the first Israel Teen Summit held at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick. Her brother Max will soon volunteer with the Israel Defense Forces and her grandfather was a frequent visitor to the country.
“It was my grandpa’s second home and I’ve heard about it from him and my brother, but I never really understood this much about it until I came here,” she said about the inaugural program, adding that she “really learned a lot about the culture” of Israel.
The Nov. 18 summit, sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey in partnership with Jerusalem U, Stand-
WithUs, AIPAC, IAC, BBYO, USY, and more, drew 150 young people to Rutgers for several workshops and to hear keynote speaker Chloe Valdary, director of partnerships and outreach for Jerusalem U, an organization that produces educational films on Judaism and Israel.
“It is more important than ever these days that young Jews understand why their extended Jewish family, and the family homestead in Israel, are important and can help enrich their lives,” said Keith Krivitzky, federation CEO. “This conference was about helping teens in our community discover their own connections and ‘why’s.’”
Inbar Singal, federation’s manager of community engagement, said teens played a significant role in planning the day’s programs. “It was their day to shine,” she said. Six out of nine workshops were planned and run by high schoolers. Topics included Israeli music, food, dance, and sports stars. There were also Krav Maga demonstrations and lessons on effective advocacy, such as how to lobby and respond to criticisms about Israel.
East Brunswick High School seniors Sari Reiter and Lyndsey Lipson were on the planning committee. Both traveled to Israel on teen programs in the summer — Lyndsey on Young Judaea Machon and Sari on Ramah Israel Seminar — and said being immersed in daily life and issues in Israel informed their programming ideas.
Living there for several weeks “made me appreciate the country so much more,” said Sari.
One of the teen-developed programs, “Israel 101,” was taught by three Highland Park High School students, twins Ava and Emily Schwartz, who are juniors, and senior Sydney Beberman. Emily said she realized “not everyone loves Israel the way we do” and her sister said that she wanted to spread their love by passing along what they learned to other teenagers.
The three teens, members of Highland Park’s Jewish Student Union, a cultural club under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, said they were inspired by their summer trips to Israel.
“There’s a lot of hatred toward Israel and we wanted to spread awareness because only through understanding its history and awareness will others get passionate about Israel,” Sydney said.
The content for “Israel 101” focuses on 3,000 years of Jewish presence in the land with modern overviews of Israel’s contributions to the fields of science, medicine, and technology. One fun fact they included in the lesson: Tokyo is the only city in the world with more sushi restaurants than Tel Aviv. At the end of the program students used their phones to answer trivia questions on a website, and winners received a prize of Israeli chocolates.
David Kiste, a Marlboro High School senior, said a session he attended led by StandWithUs, a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization, proved informative in learning about the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign being waged at many colleges.
“I learned how to confront them and advocate for Israel without getting into a big argument,” he said. “I learned to stand up for Israel.”
Noam Levy, a senior at Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, said she’s visited Israel “and it is really cool.”
“I feel many times the media just shows pictures and doesn’t really show what Israel is all about,” Noam said, “so it’s so great to learn about it and really understand it.”