Within today’s public sphere there is an urgent need for Jews to engage with tough questions surrounding Judaism, Israel and politics while simultaneously remaining embedded within the social fabric of the Jewish community.
There is perhaps no group for which this prescription holds more true than today’s high schoolers. Raised in a world of social media, information (and conspiratorial) overload, toxic politics and heightened polarization—it isn’t a question of if our high schoolers will confront antisemitism and anti-Israelism, it is only a question of where, when and how.
The Youth Leadership Initiative, a collaborative project between the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Orange County and the Rose Project of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, was launched with these exact challenges and goals in mind.
Tackling questions such as the complexities of Jewish identity, Israel’s history and the multiplicity of ways in which antisemitism manifests, the eight-week program for local high schoolers allows Jewish teenagers to cultivate the skills, knowledge and confidence to thrive as leaders of the community in college and beyond.
The “Youth Leadership Initiative: Jewish Identity, Israel and the College Campus” was the brainchild of community leader Robin Steinmetz, who wanted to ensure that her daughters felt prepared to navigate Jewish college life.
Inspired by an earlier program that Steinmetz ran called “Knowledge for College,” which centered on preparing Jewish high schoolers for university life, she ultimately partnered with the Rose Project and the ADL, and the Youth Leadership Initiative was born in early 2020.
The students who participated in the program this past year came from a variety of local Jewish communities across Orange County. Many students applied for the initiative because of the alarming increase of antisemitism in the national, local and social media level; others joined to explore foundational questions relating to their identity; and some simply wanted to feel more prepared for college.
Whatever the initial impetus, all of the students finished the program transformed.
“The students walked away with an enhanced context,” Rabbi Peter Levi, Regional Director of the ADL in Orange County/Long Beach, said via a Zoom interview. “An enhanced context from both a historical, social and personal perspective, along with a space in which students felt comfortable asking questions. Ultimately the experience wasn’t just informative but transformative.”
The program took place over Zoom and brought together an array of experts and speakers—Professor Marc Dollinger, Tema Smith and Carly Pildis, to name a few—to share their views and perspectives. It was so successful that an additional week was ultimately added to the end.
The Youth Leadership Initiative is all about giving students the space to explore and confront the types of questions that are ubiquitous throughout the wider Jewish and Israeli political and social spheres. The program aims to do away with social media-fitted soundbites, opting instead for deep engagement with complex materials and a variety of narratives. It aims to provide the type of multi-layered educational experience that will be invaluable for future conversations about these heavy and crucial topics.
Lisa Armony, Executive Director of the Rose Project, highlighted the fact that local synagogues and youth groups are crucial partners of this work.
“We really see this as supplementing the work that local community partners are already doing with the teens,” she said. “We know that teens are experiencing a heightened engagement with ant-Semitic material, and they are concerned with it.”
Throughout this process, students gain not only a better understanding of the germane issues discussed throughout but they gain a deep connection to and deeper insight into their Jewish identity as a whole.
First, they were able to create friendships with teenagers from other local communities, bonds which will hopefully remain long after the program’s end. More fundamentally, there is much documentation that engagement with any part of Judaism strengthens one’s connection to Judaism and Jewish tradition as a whole. So the program is a perfect way to bolster the confidence of teenagers while also allowing them to take ownership over their identity, entered into the millennia-old Jewish imperative to wrestle with nuanced and complex ideas.
Applications for the 2021 session, which will launch after the high holidays, will be out soon. In the coming year, the program will be a hybrid between Zoom and in-person instruction to allow for a robust social element for the students. For information, email Robin Steinmetz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINE is the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel,
the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah and Is a
contributing writer to JLife Magazine. He can be reached