Rabbi Shmuel Greene said he did not want the workshop he was about to introduce, “Stand Up for Israel,” to have to take place again.
“Let's hope it's the last,” he told a group of over 30 Jewish high school students May 19 at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
Conceived last year by Etzion Neuer, NJ director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Melanie Roth Gorelick, associate director of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest, Stand Up for Israel is based on an ADL educational model. Representatives from the various advocacy organizations were invited to make presentations at the event, which was funded by a CRC program grant to ADL. In addition to being sponsored by the ADL and the MetroWest CRC, the workshop was held in collaboration with The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life (United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ's Jewish identity-building agency), JCC MetroWest, the Legow Family Israel Program Center, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
Greene, the director of teen initiatives at The Partnership, emphasized that young Jews would continue to need help in combating anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses across the country.
Speaking before the event, students said they were drawn to the program because they had the same general concerns as Greene, though their fears were less defined.
Mikayla Nissan, whose father is Israeli and an AIPAC supporter, said she has not yet seen anti-Israel demonstrations, but added, “I'm sure I will.”
Following Greene's introduction, Neuer told the 34 registered students that campuses “are not war zones.” Nevertheless, they could encounter a potentially hostile atmosphere for which they may be unprepared.
To illustrate, Neuer showed a video of anti-Israel protesters on a campus holding up signs accusing Israel of creating a system of apartheid in the Palestinian territories and of perpetrating another Holocaust. Neuer laid out his goals for the students by the end of the event: that they would want to respond to such accusations, would know how to respond and whom to turn to for help, and would gain confidence in responding.
The workshop participants split into four groups, rotating among four tables for breakout sessions. One sessions was run by Greene; the others were manned by representatives from pro-Israel organizations: the Hasbara Fellowships, the David Project, and StandWithUs (see sidebar).
At each table, students were shown a video clip of an anti-Israel activity and then encouraged to discuss how it made them feel and how they would respond in each situation. The students' responses showed their tentativeness over how to respond to potential anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
Greene, after showing a video of a speaker comparing modern-day Jews to Nazis, asked the teens if they would attend such a speech. While most shook their heads, a few responded that they would.
“I would go, because it would help me have more knowledge of what was going on,” said Sophie Schoenberg of Millburn.
Yael David of Livingston agreed: “If you really care about it, and there's something happening, you shouldn't just sit in your dorm.”
At another table, Elliot Matthias of the Hasbara Fellowships asked students how they would respond to a popular tactic employed by pro-Palestinian activists on some campuses: setting up an “Apartheid Wall” and covering it with anti-Israel slogans and pictures.
Amitai Edri, a MetroWest “Rishon” – young shaliah, or emissary – from Rishon Letzion, had the idea of pre-empting such events by telling Israel's version of the story first. He proposed creating “a visual thing…[like] showing the real [security] fence.”
Amid the many discussions, group leaders urged students to be pro-active, stay informed, and frame the conversation in their own terms.
At the conclusion of the event, many students reported feeling more prepared to use these tools on college campuses.
Alan Meskin of Sparta said he appreciated all he learned at the event, particularly how it “gave the focus to being proactive and demonstrated the positives of Israel.”
“This has encouraged me to look at colleges where I can take a step forward in advocating for Israel,” said Meital Rosenberg of Morris Plains, noting that the presence of multiple organizations at the event helped her feel more confident in having a support system.
Gorelick also praised the varied approach. “We don't want the kids to think there is only one way of handling [these] things,” she said.