Transitioning into life on a college campus is an adjustment process for all young adults. Jewish teens often face an additional layer of tasks, such as finding a place of worship, the best place for a Shabbat meal, or even their niche within a Jewish community larger or more diverse than they ever experienced before.
They also often find themselves engaging in a difficult conversation — one where they are charged with defending their Jewish identity and connection to the State of Israel. Many in the Jewish community feel that growing up in an environment supportive of Israel automatically prepares teens to engage with anti-Israel narratives, but teens, professionals, and community members say this is not always true.
“You grew up in Montgomery County, [Maryland], went to Jewish day school, your friends are Jewish, and then you get to campus and people are virulently anti-Israel,” said Rick Zitelman. A father of three and donor to several Jewish institutions, Zitelman contributes funds toward Israel education programming at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. “People assume that just because you have a Jewish background and you went to day school you are better prepared, but you are not,” he said.
“One of the problems is that when a teenager goes off to college, they’re exposed to a cacophony of voices and alternative facts, and suddenly they feel they haven’t been given the full picture,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington.
The Trouble With Israel on College Campuses
Miri Kornfeld, executive director of high school affairs at Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, said that even her pro-Israel upbringing did not prepare her for what was to come when she got to college.
“I grew up in a Zionist home and community in Denver, Colorado, and when I got to UCLA and saw the Apartheid wall I felt like someone stabbed me in the heart,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went and got myself educated, but by the time I did that they already got their message out.”
Gary Simms is a faculty member at Shoresh Hebrew High School in Rockville, Maryland, where he teaches three courses on Israel, Judaism, and the history of the Zionist movement. Shoresh Hebrew High School is a Jewish studies program for eighth-12th grade students attending secular schools in the Greater Washington area, meeting at the Bender JCC on Sunday evenings during the school year.
Simms observed that even before college, exposure to anti-Israel sentiments around them might affect the way some teens view the country.
“Larger society’s negative portrayal of Israel and the issue with the Palestinians is something those students have all been continually exposed to,” he said. “So, they have very serious questions.”
This negative portrayal has found fertile ground on American college campuses. Statistics from the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise show that while the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has lost more college student government votes than it has won, BDS motions have been increasingly voted on — and passed — across the United States in recent years. While only 10 BDS resolutions passed between 2005 and 2013, 33 such resolutions passed between 2013 and 2018.
The Antidote: Facts, Discussion, and Critical Thinking
But what is the best way to ensure teens are better equipped to discuss Israel with their peers? Both Siegel and Simms argued that rather than indoctrination, the best way to prepare teens for this challenge is to give them the facts and allow them to form their own opinions.
“The most important thing for us is that they’re capable of understanding the complexities in Israel,” Siegel said. “We are proudly Zionist, but we believe in letting kids be who they are and allowing them to form their own opinions.”
Simms added that while support for Israel is important, providing teens with deep knowledge about the country and giving space to the full spectrum of opinions might have the strongest impact.
“I think the goal is not to indoctrinate them in terms of support for Israel,” he said. “But to make them understand that they have to have a deeper appreciation of what the media is portraying.”
The Margo and Yoram Cohen Family Israel Engagement Fellowship (IEF), organized jointly by the JCRC and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, is one of many programs committed to educating teens about the State of Israel and its connection to the greater Jewish community. The eight-week program, offered in Maryland and Northern Virginia, brings together a host of lessons, activities, and speakers — both Israeli and Palestinian — in an effort to present participants with a nuanced view of Israel.
“I don’t think I really had much of a foundation about Israel before the IEF,” said Allison Feinberg, a high school senior from Loudoun County, Virginia. “Other than the fact that I believed in [Israel’s] right to exist because I was Jewish and that was what I was told.”
Zitelman also believes that allowing teens to develop their own positions will help them become more involved.
“You can’t just say love Israel and back Israel—they have to know facts, the good, bad, and the ugly,” he said. “They have to know the different positions and be educated on it so they can be engaged.”
But how exactly should one go about doing that? Different programs — such as JCRC and Federation’s Israel Engagement Fellowship, or the many programs StandWithUs offers that are geared toward young adults — take different approaches. But it seems that a mix of education about the history of Israel and its connection to Judaism coupled with ensuring teens feel free to think differently could be the beginning of the answer to this complex question.
Knowing that this conversation exists elsewhere could help teens feel more comfortable with their own questions, according to Simms. “In a way, Israelis are freer to disagree with their government than those of us who live in the golah [diaspora] where there is more pressure to conform; but the fact is that Israelis among themselves have vigorous debates about all of these issues,” he said.
Feinberg agreed. “I think the most crucial part in preparing young adults for discussions on Israel is making sure that they know the facts, both the ones that support Israel and the ones that go against it, because the reality is that no matter what side you support and what you think, both sides have made mistakes and I think it’s pretty ignorant to completely blame one side or the other,” she said. “If people know the facts, they can properly discuss their beliefs.”
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a staff reporter for Kol HaBirah. Born and raised in Israel, he currently writes for several DC-based publications while pursuing his master’s degree at American University.