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Frankel Jewish Academy sophomore Ilan Weiss (left) participates in a simulation of a Knesset legislative debate with Charlotte, N.C., sophomores Kiera Schneiderman and Max Sawyer.
Frankel Jewish Academy sophomore Ilan Weiss (left) participates in a simulation of a Knesset legislative debate with Charlotte, N.C., sophomores Kiera Schneiderman and Max Sawyer.

FJA Teens Immersed in Israel’s Culture, Context

Two high school students from Michigan were among 24 teens who gathered at the Emory University campus in Atlanta from Oct. 26-28 for the second Teen Israel Leadership Institute hosted by the Center for Israel Education and the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

The weekend featured a mix of activities, discussions and educational games designed to expand students’ knowledge and understanding of Israel and Zionism and to help them plan learning programs back home.

“Our second teen seminar was a rousing success,” CIE Vice President Rich Walter said.

The 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders also forged friendships with peers from across the country. The 24 teens came from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Michigan and California.

Jessica Caminker of West Bloomfield and Ilan Weiss of Huntington Woods, both Frankel Jewish Academy 10th-graders, attended from the Detroit area.

Weiss, who is involved with Frankel’s Students Supporting Israel chapter, said he attended the seminar for help with planning Israel-related programs for the school’s students.

“We learned some very cool programming ideas that helped us brainstorm different ways to educate others about the history and culture of Israel,” he said, adding that he hopes to implement some of the ideas this school year.

The institute is part of a national CIE initiative to provide more impactful education on Israel to Jewish teens. A grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund is supporting the program.

After the inaugural teen institute in April, Walter said, “we wanted to put more of an emphasis on helping the participants understand the many different elements that lead to successful programming.”

The institute organizers therefore brought in Kelly Cohen, the director of JumpSpark, the Atlanta Jewish teen initiative, who led a highly interactive session in which teens had to develop a program goal and use a variety of variables to craft a program outline.

“We also put more emphasis on making sessions more engaging and interactive overall,” Walter said.

“As a result, we added a Knesset simulation activity, a session on Israeli hip-hop music and several experiential games.”

For example, the students formed a human timeline representing Zionist and Israeli events from 1881 (the start of the First Aliyah) to 2007 (Hamas’ takeover of Gaza), picked out the eight prime ministers among 16 head shots, identified the Israeli locations of cat photos, and played a version of the Food Network show “Chopped” in which six teams made hummus that had to include such ingredients as wheat crackers, hot sauce and orange Gatorade.

“I enjoyed meeting people from all over the country from different schools and various Jewish backgrounds and discussing our passion for Israel,” Weiss said. “We learned a lot about the Knesset and modern Israeli culture.”

CIE and ISMI emphasize context and documentary evidence in the study of Israel’s issues and history but do not advocate specific views, allowing students to reach their own conclusions. To that end, CIE President Ken Stein led two sessions to help the teens own Israel’s story and confront the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the teens got to choose among two or more programs several times during the weekend.

The program included the Abrahamic Reunion, a team of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze leaders, and explored different perspectives on Israel’s independence in 1948 and diverse elements in modern Israeli culture.

“There was a lot of excitement about Israel and learning real facts about the country that give you ideas to bring back to your school and equip with knowledge,” especially as students move on to college, Weiss said.

“Israel is the embodiment of freedom and the embodiment of Judaism,” Los Angeles 12th-grader Gavi Kollin said. After attending the April and October seminars, “when I talk to other people about Israel, I’m going to try to come from a much more collected point of view.”

Although Israel was the focus of the weekend, it also addressed anti-Semitism, a topic that took on unexpected immediacy when the massacre occurred at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue while the institute teens were worshiping and studying at Emory’s Marcus Hillel Center.

“It’s just a reminder that there’s always people who are not going to like us, who are not going to like people who are different from them,” Walter said during a brief discussion after Shabbat. “We’ve been living in a time period where it seems like there’s a lot of extreme views on all sides of the political spectrum, and we need to take things we hear very seriously.”

Noa Libchaber, an 11th-grader from New York, said she was amazed when the high-schoolers joined more than 100 Emory students at Hillel for Friday dinner and services. “Seeing that beautiful unification and then the next day hearing about Pittsburgh, it just made me feel really lucky to be a part of a religion that comes together with so much strength and power.”

The next teen seminar in Atlanta is in the planning stages. Follow CIE on Facebook and the web for details on when to apply, and visit CIE’s YouTube channel to see highlights of the teen institute.

Photos courtesy of the Center for Israel Education.

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