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‘We knew we couldn’t let the kids down’

The annual StandWithUs conference draws some 500 Jewish and pro-Israel students to Los Angeles to feel “connected,” experience “unity.”


Ryan Torok | March 6, 2024 | Jewish News Syndicate



The Los Angeles-based nonprofit StandWithUs almost didn’t hold its annual conference this year amid the rising costs of flights, hotel rooms and food. But with Jew-hatred surging on campuses, the organization felt it had to afford young people a chance to come together.


“Because of Oct. 7, we knew we couldn’t let the kids down,” co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS. “They needed to be together. They really connected and felt that unity.”


Some 500 young people from across the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and the Netherlands, attended the “Israel in Focus” conference at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport from March 1-3.


Kayla Diamond, an Emerson fellow at StandWithUS and a student at the South African College of Applied Psychology, told JNS that the nonprofit is different from other Jewish advocacy organizations with which she is involved.


“They give the most resources,” said Diamond, who traveled to the conference from Johannesburg. “They empower us to learn more and to teach others. They stand out.”


Raymond Ashkenazie, 18, a senior at a Jewish day school in Manhattan, came from Brooklyn, N.Y. He told JNS that he grew up “in a very Jewish bubble.” He said he was surprised when participating in a selective U.S. Senate Page Program in Washington, D.C, in the summer of his junior year to encounter “very harsh antisemitism.” That included a fellow page asking him if he’d read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.


“Everyone has a story because today, you can’t be a Jewish high school student or a college student, a young adult living in America and not experience antisemitism,” Ashkenazie said. 

As president of his school’s student government and Israel advocacy club, he has been able to bring some of the knowledge he has gained at StandWithUs programs back to New York to share with classmates. The recent program helped him teach classmates “about how to combat antisemitism, how to respond to antisemitism,” he told JNS. 


On March 1, Betty Srour, a StandWithUs Emerson fellow, a student at the University of Miami and president of its Hillel, spoke with three co-panelists about the ways StandWithUs has provided resources to pro-Israel high school and college students since Oct. 7.


“StandWithUs supports us,” Srour said on the panel. “Our campus regional managers are behind us. And if any of us are ever faced with opposition or hate or need support in any way, just remember you are not alone and you have people to turn to.”


‘A world of silence’

Debra Messing, the well-known TV sitcom star, was one of several celebrities to address students at the event. Messing, who is Jewish, emphasized her support for Israel and condemned Jew-hatred wherever it showed itself. 


“Our collective call to action must be the dismantling of the ‘colonialist apartheid’ narrative,” she said, addressing about 500 attendees, mostly high-schoolers and college students. 


“We must educate people about the history of Israel and the peace-loving, passionate, inclusive, resilient Israelis who’ve been living there for millennia,” Messing said. “We must teach the world that antisemitism, anti-Zionism, is racism.”


‘Social-justice activists have been brainwashed’

Speaking at a dinner on March 2, Messing said that she grew up in a pro-Israel family with two “very proud and active” Zionist parents.


“Israel was their spiritual home, and during my childhood, they went on six missions, returning with even more passion and devotion to the Jewish indigenous homeland,” she said. “I was taught that it was our obligation as Jews in the Diaspora to protect Israel.”

Infuriated by Hamas’s Oct. 7 terror attack, Messing recently traveled to Israel to show support—her first trip to the Jewish state. She interacted with soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, visited Kibbutz Kfar Aza in the southern part of the country where the atrocities occurred and met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, as well as with hospitalized victims of the war and family members of hostages being held captive in Gaza.


The “Will & Grace” star called the trip “transformative.”


When she returned home, she was shocked and disheartened to see riots and protests on college campuses and elsewhere calling for “the genocide of Jews and the annihilation of Israel,” she told attendees.


Worse, she said, they were met with “a world of silence.”


“So-called ‘social-justice activists’ have been brainwashed, and Jewish students do not feel safe,” Messing said. She concluded with Am Yisrael Chai, “the Jewish people live.”


‘The moral man is losing’

Several other entertainers addressed attendees of the StandWithUs conference, including comedian Brett Gelman of the Netflix series “Stranger Things”; his wife Ari Dayan, a Los Angeles-based artist and performer; and John Ondrasik, frontman of the successful pop-music group Five for Fighting.


Earlier this month, Ondrasik, who is not Jewish, released a single with an accompanying music video that demonstrated his outrage over the Oct. 7 attack against Israel and the morally shocking stance of those who justified Hamas’s actions afterward.


The song lyrics read, in part: “This is a time for choosing. This is a time to mourn. The moral man is losing.”


“One doesn’t have to be Jewish to condemn the evil that is Hamas,” Ondrasik told attendees.


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