I go to a rather large public school with only a small number of Jewish students, so often I am the only Jew in a room. I love being able to educate my peers about stuff I’ve grown up learning. Unfortunately, there was one aspect of being a modern-day Jew that I had trouble answering questions about.
It’s hard to be a Jew today without hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so being the only Jew in a room full of curious, educated non-Jews, I heard lots of questions about it. The problem was that I only knew the very, very basics.
I first heard of the Margo and Yoram Cohen Family Israel Engagement Fellowship (IEF), a program run by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, from my mother, who works for the JCRC. “You have to do this program, you’d be perfect for it,” she said. Little did I know how perfect a fit it would be.
My new response for people addressing me with questions about the conflict became “I’m actually going to be in a program where I join a bunch of other Jewish students to sit down and talk about what’s happening there.” I still didn’t realize that the program was much more than that.
At IEF, we don’t only discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; we talk about the history of the land of Israel, how it affects modern day Jews, anti-Semitism on college campuses, how to build your own narrative, and especially how to start a dialogue with someone who has a different narrative.
We start off discussing important events in Jewish history and continue further into Israeli culture, what it means to be Jewish, and how we as Jews feel about the conflicts going on in Israel. We portray various scenarios in order to understand the Israeli government; we watchvideos about anti-Semitism; and we play “Kahoot” to quiz ourselves about Israeli culture. IEF creates a fun environment of team building and learning in order to educate ourselves about a not-so-fun topic.
Every 11th grader at my school is writing a ten-page research paper about an injustice going on in modern society. My topic is how anti-Zionism is being used as a front for anti-Semitism. I am writing about how people are discriminating against Jews under the pretext that it is about how they feel about the conflicts happening in Israel. I chose this topic before I started IEF, so I was extremely lucky to be picked for this program.
Before the IEF, the only thing I knew about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that there was one. I didn’t know about the history that led to the conflict. I didn’t know how it is affecting Jews in America, nor how it is creating an environment of distress on college campuses. IEF has given me the opportunity to learn about Israel and its conflicts in a safe environment, where I feel comfortable saying, “I am not educated enough to answer this question. Please help me learn so I can answer it in the future.”
Due to the Israel Engagement Fellowship, I now feel excited to help educate others about Israel, I can create a dialogue with people who have different opinions, and I feel relatively prepared for the challenges I might face in years to come.
Meirav Steinlauf is a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. She is the editor in chief of her school’s literary arts magazine and a founding member of her school’s Jewish Student Union.