Don’t let their youthful faces fool you: Members of the American Jewish Committee’s Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT) program are anything but naive and apathetic – common pejorative adjectives to describe today’s youth.
These students began advocating for Israel in high school, a hectic time of life for many students, where supporting the Jewish state doesn’t rank high on the priority list.
And yet, in the past three years, this AJC initiative is going strong, with 200 students across four cities in the US participating.
The program was conceived when LFT alum Ryan Berger was dismayed by the way Israel’s latest conflict with Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, was addressed by the media.
“As someone who cares deeply about Israel, I felt overwhelmed because I couldn’t keep up with the conversations my parents and grandparents were having about the conflict. I wanted to be better informed,” Berger, who was 15 at the time, said.
Berger thought AJC’s lack of programming for high-school students was a missed opportunity and he took his idea to the organization’s CEO, David Harris.
“When Ryan Berger first came to us with his appeal for help, I was totally sympathetic, even as I wondered if AJC was equipped to deal with high-school students, a new demographic for us,” Harris recalled. “But I also understood that saying ‘no’ just wasn’t an option. Here was a plea for help from a young, committed Jew to understand the issues at a deeper level and learn the tools of advocacy and diplomacy. We’ve never looked back. LFT is, without doubt, one of the most exciting, important, and forward-looking initiatives undertaken by AJC in recent memory.”
Since then, the program has helped empower students to speak up in support of the Jewish state so when they enter the potential hostile anti-Israel climate in many American universities, they are well equipped to combat any misinformation they encounter.
“AJC created a huge outlet for us to try out ideas and express frustrations we have – double standards in the news, our classrooms or among our peers. We could express our opinion and not be judged or pay a price or penalty,” William Scherr, a LFT alum who now goes to Cornell, said.
Scherr, Berger and three other LFT alumni participants were able to put their curiosity of Israel to the ultimate test when they had a unique chance to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to attending AJC’s Global Forum last year. The interview, which was arranged by AJC and broadcast at the organization’s Global Forum last year, was a formative moment for the students.
“It was a confidence-boosting moment,” Scherr said of the experience. “Being able to use my knowledge of current events and history of the Jewish people to formulate a question for the prime minister and engage with him was such a gratifying moment before entering college.
“We were given so much freedom. We formulated our own questions. It wasn’t AJC telling us what to ask,” he added. “We were able to create ideas and questions based on our own curiosity.”
The students have been able to put the ideas they cultivated about Israel into action on their respective campuses. Scherr, for example, engaged in a lively conversation about the Iranian nuclear deal with his college professor in class this year.
“I spoke against the Iranian nuclear deal and [my professor] came up to me after class and thanked me for speaking up. I thought that was a terrific moment of what true education should be,” he said.
The inquisitive students embody the next generation of activists AJC hopes to attract and their strong work ethic and passion for Israel even elicited an affectionate moniker from Harris himself: the gang of five.
This year, the students returned to Israel to participate in the first Global Forum ever held in Israel.
For these students, seeing Israel through the LFT lens had a powerful impact on them. “My appreciation for Israel grew after LFT. I didn’t feel the urgency I feel now. When I was younger, I didn’t grasp how precious and rare and unique Israel is. Coming back, I see how everything here is holy and sacred. I think this is a credit to LFT. I didn’t have that feeling of awareness before,” Molly Shapiro from Yale said.
Although she didn’t know how to articulate her feelings at the time, Ally Malehorn had a similarly emotional reaction when she came to Israel for the first time.
“I was 10 years old and standing at the Western Wall with my grandmother, who suddenly broke down in tears. When you see an adult crying, you’re taken aback. As I grew older I remembered that moment and learned how unique Israel is, I appreciated everything it had to offer even more,” she said.
However, despite their courage and maturity, they are still very much kids and entering into the new world of college could be daunting for any new student – especially when a campus environment has displayed signs of antisemitism.
Brett Zaslavsky, who is now a freshman at University of Michigan, has seen this worrisome trend firsthand at his school.
“At Michigan the divestment resolution was really notable,” Zaslavsky said, referring to the first-ever passage of an anti-Israel divestment resolution passed by the school’s central student government last year. “These are resolutions that seem narrow and inconsequential in scope but have an effect on Jewish students.”
Berger cautions that anti-Israel and Jewish sentiment exists on high-school campuses as well, which only reinforces the need for programs like LFT to spread around the country.
“The reason LFT hits at the right time is that it’s not just something you face when you leave your home, but you see it at home too,” Berger said.
At the end of their interview with Netanyahu last year, the prime minister left them with these words of advice: “Be brave and stand up for the truth.”
Judging by the work they’ve done on campus since, they’ve been embodying just that.
This article was written in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee.