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With Israel Issue Hot on Campus, Groups Train High School Advocates

January 23, 2004
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As a college student in the former Soviet Union, one of Natan Sharansky’s first forms of resistance was to call himself Natan rather than Anatoly.

The move symbolized the return to his Jewish roots, the legendary refusenik turned Israeli Cabinet minister told a group of Jewish high school students here on Jan. 15.

“If you don’t speak your mind in the years when you are a student, you will not do it at all,” Sharansky said. He said associating with Israel had boosted his image on campus during his student days.

Sharansky keynoted the half-day event of pro-Israel lectures, with workshops like “Israeli history in 30 minutes” and testimonials from recent college grads marking the launch of a national campaign called the Israel Advocacy High School Coalition.

The coalition of 34 Jewish groups — ranging from Hillel to Young Judaea — was organized by Sharansky and the Jewish National Fund to instill pride in Israel among Jewish high school students and arm them with Israel- advocacy tools.

The program represents a concerted effort that several Jewish groups recently began on their own.

The American Jewish Committee, in coordination with the Solomon Schechter High School of New York, created the Israel Knowledge, Advocacy and Responsibility program, offering teaching material ranging from visual aids to workshops.

B’nai B’rith Youth Organization has developed a two-week summertime Israel-advocacy program in which the second half is spent lobbying students’ congressmen in Washington.

The recent New York session was a pilot program the coalition plans to replicate in cities across the United States by targeting Jewish high school students through youth groups and day schools, according to JNF.

When the start of the intifada sparked anti-Israel activity on U.S. college campuses, Jewish organizations found themselves scurrying to equip ill-informed Jewish students with basic facts about Israel.

After three years of advocacy programs for college students and the formation of an umbrella group, called the Israel on Campus Coalition, to coordinate them, Jewish groups now are hoping to get ahead of the curve by prepping Jews still in high school.

“Our work on college campuses with Caravan for Democracy, our college activist program, during the past two years has shown us that it is imperative that we begin preparing our students while they are still in high school for what they will face when they get to college,” JNF president Ronald Lauder said in a news release.

Indeed, several of the groups appear to be applying the Israel-advocacy models and resources they use on college campuses for the new high school initiative.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which puts out “Israel Campus Beat,” a weekly e-mail primer for college students on Israeli current events, has plans for a high school version, the “High Alert.”

Organizers of the Israel Project, a Washington-based polling and research group that is working with Israel and Jewish groups to improve public perceptions of Israel, taught the high schoolers the do’s and don’ts of Israel advocacy.

“Keep it simple, stupid,” Israel Project director Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi told the group. “Avoid analysis paralysis,” she warned, and reminded students that they don’t have to have all the answers.

For many of the students, Sharansky’s presence drove home the significance of Thursday’s event. They said they felt ready to take on the challenge of becoming advocates for Israel and ensure that their future college campuses will not erupt with the kind of hysteria shown in a video clip they watched of an anti-Israel mob at Concordia University in Montreal.

“Most people are willing to sit down and have a fairly civilized conversation about the crisis in the Middle East,” said Benjamin Smyser, 18, a senior at the Solomon Schechter School of New York who is going to Wesleyan University in the fall.

Smyser said he long has been exposed to news and education about Israel. Since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, he and his friends have debated the situation often.

“We may not be adults yet per se,” he said, but “I feel that certainly we’re ready to handle this stuff.”

Aimee Almeleh, a senior at Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island, said the Concordia video clip made her more eager to join the fray.

If those students can “carry on and scream about whatever they feel is an injustice, it empowers me to get up and express what I really feel is an injustice,” said Almeleh, who is heading to Princeton University in the fall.

She added, however, that as a Jewish day school student, she already feels a strong sense of pride and knowledge about Israel. The program might be more effective by targeting Jewish high school students that are less identified, she said.

Deena Greenberg, 17, a senior at the Solomon Schechter High School of New York and student chairwoman of the new program, disagreed.

It’s “really important to start already with those who really care,” and “who are going to be active on campus and then spread that spirit among others,” Greenberg said. She is president of her school’s Israel Action Committee and a participant in an Israel-advocacy writing program for high school students, called Write On For Israel.

The program marks a long-overdue beginning, those involved in the effort say.

“For too long the community as a whole has ignored the campus and the high school part of our community,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, told the group.

“We’re trying to catch up,” he said. “It’s “too late once people are there or intimidated.”

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