Jewish Community Voice
March 11, 2020
The proliferation of anti-Israel messages in the media and on college campuses is not news. Nor is the rising opposition to Israel here and abroad. What is surprising, however, is the number of Jewish youth with anti-Israel sentiments.
“I’ve met bright young Jewish kids, even in our own community, who have had a very solid Jewish education but who are not showing pro-Israel support,” said Alise Panitch, past president of Politz Day School of Cherry Hill and advocate for government funding of security for Jewish day schools. “It’s not a given that young people, even young people in day school, will have a strong understanding of Israel and the complicated issues it faces. If they don’t have it, they will be vulnerable to those who seek to attack Israel.”
This is what compelled Panitch to research what options were available. The one that jumped out at her was LINK, a middle school Israel curriculum that is digitally interactive, experiential, and developed by StandWithUs (SWU), an international organization that fights anti-Semitism and supports Israel through leadership programming on college campuses and in high schools. StandWithUs also provides the content for Ambassadors.IL, a teen Israel advocacy program led by Arkady Hasidovich, Jewish Federation’s senior shaliach (emissary from Israel).
Wishing to learn more, Panitch reached out to Mina Rush, LINK’s national director of middle school education, who developed the program. The two connected over their shared passion for Israel education, as well as the fact that both have sons who have served as soldiers with the IDF. When Rush came to New York from Los Angeles, Panitch “jumped on a bus and met me in Manhattan,” Rush recalled, where they spoke about LINK, its history, and its goals.
Rush, who worked for 11 years in Jewish education, was recruited by StandWithUS to be their director of community engagement. “They wanted to build a movement around certain [Israel-related] issues,” Rush explained. She began working on programming that would engage youth. “I saw kids who were totally checked out,” Rush said. “They were in day school because their parents were afraid of the alternative, or in Hebrew school only to get to the bar or bat mitzvah. I wanted to give them a hook they can hang their hat on: If this is Judaism, this could work for me.”
StandWithUs supported Rush as she built her passion project, which she decided would be different from standard Israel advocacy.
Paula Joffe, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Region of StandWithUs, agreed with Rush. “At StandWithUs, we’ve learned that while we’re able to get kids in high school and college, sometimes it’s already too late. There has to be a place where kids can discover Israel for themselves and create love and passion about Israel—warts and all.”
Rush’s vision was to engage middle school students in experiential and project-based learning to foster their own, personal connection to Israel, separate from any religious or political agenda. She gathered educators from every Jewish denomination, including post-denominational institutions, and brainstormed the project for eight months. The goal was to discover what teachers and students felt was missing from Israel education.
What Rush and her cohort discovered was that “very little actual Israel education was going on. In most schools, Israel was siloed for a week or for a day. Like, ‘We’re going to eat falafel and have a petting zoo and call it a kibbutz.’ It’s fun and cute, but it’s superficial. When you silo anything, set it apart as opposed to integrate it, it’s easy to set it apart from you.”
They put together a yearlong pilot to be tested at 20 schools of different denominations across the country—then spent the following summer integrating all the feedback they got. The product is a multi-module program designed to help students understand the many contributions Israel has made and is making in the world in the fields of medicine, tech, humanitarian aid, water technology, international disaster relief, and agriculture. “LINK was designed to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding so when kids encounter misinformation or straight-out lies, or things that may hold some truth but not the entire picture, they’re able to draw on what they’ve learned and not be blindsided,” Rush said.
LINK officially launched in the fall of 2017 in 68 schools of various denominations and settings. Two years later, LINK is in 170 schools, and roughly 3,600 students have engaged with the program.
“This is really the best in what technology has to offer Israel education,” said Panitch. She noted the ability, through video presentations, to expose students to lesser-known sides of Israel, such as its diverse population of Muslims, Druze, Christians, and a wide spectrum of Jews. “In these different accounts, there’s an Ethiopian girl who talks about her dreams, a Yemenite pilot who brought refugees to Israel,” said Panitch. “These vivid video presentations and exercises make the most powerful Jewish stories seem real.”
“We want the kids to see that Israel is a tolerant, vibrant democracy, which is the crux of its relationship with the U.S.,” Joffe added. “Israel is an American value.”
After speaking with Rush, Panitch reached out to area day schools and Hebrew schools, including Cong. Beth El in Voorhees and Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, to gauge interest in integrating LINK into their programs. “I wanted to expand and invite any Jewish institution that works in education of youth to see if LINK would work for them,” she said. When she received an overwhelmingly positive response, Panitch applied for and received a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, Inc.
“When we got the JCF grant, it essentially covered the expense of LINK being integrated into programs at Kellman Brown Academy and Politz,” Panitch said. “We’ll be able to provide it now at no cost [to the schools].” The heads of both schools completed a three-hour LINK training, as did teachers. From Cong. Beth El, Rabbi Andy Green and Education Director Nogah Marshall also completed trainings. Temple Beth Sholom also has the training in its schedule.
With the implementation of LINK in Jewish educational institutions throughout South Jersey, Panitch is confident that students will be given the tools they need to become future advocates for Israel. “We’re facing a really big challenge today in educating our youth,” she said. “I think this is one really positive answer.”
“I have tremendous gratitude for Alise for getting LINK into Politz and Kellman,” said Joffe, “We are working to have LINK be a South Jersey standard educational tool. Parents learn about this and say, ‘Thank God.’ We really want to give this to families throughout the region.”
To learn more about LINK and StandWithUs, contact Paula Joffe at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (484) 730- 8544.
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