A coalition that includes local Jewish institutions is sponsoring a three-part Sunday lunch and learn series to help high school students defend Israel on college campuses.
The program, Stand Up for Israel, is being sponsored by StandWithUs, a nonprofit pro-Israel education organization; Marlboro Jewish Center; and Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen. Participants have been invited from a range of denominations and perspectives.
Initial funding provided by the two synagogues is being supplemented by a $2,140 opportunity grant from Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
The sessions are open to people of all ages.
“There is a level of apathy in American Jewry today,” said Jules Cohn, chair of the Israel Affairs Committee at MJC. “Others are just uninformed. I originally thought it was just young people and teens, but when I began doing this five years ago I quickly realized my generation, people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and these kids’ parents were just as unconcerned about Israel.”
The first program — on Israel’s diversity and its environmental and technological innovations — was held Jan. 10 at MJC. Israel’s history will be the focus on Jan. 24, and Israel and the United Nations will be discussed on Feb. 21.
The program reflects concerns on the part of Jewish leaders about the strength of pro-Palestinian groups and supports of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign on campuses.
Barbara Safer, who cochairs Temple Beth Ahm’s Israel Affairs Committee with Merri Cohen, said teens were pinpointed because “they’re the ones that will be our future, and we need them to understand the challenges and stand up for Israel.”
“When you think about it, Israel is the only country in the world that has to defend its right to exist,” she said. “Teens have to understand why it’s important to keep Israel alive, vibrant, and safe.”
Moreover, while few teens may have experienced overt anti-Semitism, in other places they may be faced with a different situation. “They may be going to college in places where people aren’t knowledgeable or tolerant of Jews, and they need to know how to stand up for their culture,” said Safer, an Old Bridge resident.
Paul Friedman, the tristate high school coordinator for StandWithUs, is the presenter at all three programs. “The goal of the event is to educate students and establish a strong bond and connection to Israel, and give students all the facts and statistics necessary to respond to false accusations,” said Friedman, who grew up in Old Bridge. When faced with anti-Jewish or Israel sentiment in college, he said, students are often “caught off-guard.”
The Los Angeles-based StandWithUs has 16 offices in the United States, as well as in London, Toronto, and Jerusalem. Although the organization takes a consistently uncritical approach to Israeli policy, it describes itself as nonpartisan.
“We are not a political or religious organization,” said Friedman. “We don’t want to just appeal to left-wing Democrats or right-wing Republicans. We don’t want to just appeal to Jews. We want to appeal to everyone and expose everyone to the facts about Israel so they can make an educated and informed decision.”
Josh Cohen of Marlboro, a 16-year-old junior at Colts Neck High School who has signed up to participate in the series, called Israel advocacy for Jewish teens “super important, because there is an increasing lack of education about Israel.”
“Without being educated about Israel, a teen who is going into college can be easily swayed to believe all the negative images and stories in the media,” he said. “Israel advocacy teaches teens to have an open mind about Israel, and to understand how harsh bias has affected the public opinion of our homeland country. It also ensures that future generations see past the anti-Israel propaganda, learn the real facts about Israel, and have an understanding of why Israel is so important to the future of Judaism.”
Sarah Safer of Old Bridge, another program attendee, said it is important for Jewish teens to understand and connect with Israel. “Our hearts and souls are there,” said Sarah, 16, the Israel Affairs vice president of USY at Temple Beth Ahm. “It’s our duty as the future generation to understand everything that is special and unique about Israel, and to continue to advocate for peace.”
A host of synagogues and teen organizations such as BBYO, the Conservative movement’s USY, and the Orthodox NCSY, throughout the region have committed to supporting the program. Friedman called the multi-denominational backgrounds of those attending “a dream come true.”
The participants who have signed on are coming from Congregation B’nai Israel, Rumson; Temple Beth Shalom, Manalapan; Congregation Ahavat Olam, Howell; Temple Shalom, Aberdeen; Temple Shaari Emeth, Manalapan; Temple Rodeph Torah, Marlboro; Congregation Kol Am, Freehold; Congregation Sons of Israel, Manalapan; Monmouth Torah Links, Englishtown; B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; United Synagogue Youth Hagalil Region; and National Council of Synagogue Youth.