As if applying to college weren’t stressful enough — ask any high school senior currently working on applications — for many Jewish high school students there’s still another factor to consider in their decision.
Is their top college choice pro-Israel, neutral or actively hostile? What should a student do when a professor’s bias against Israel in a Middle East history class creates a chilling atmosphere for Jewish students? How should a Jewish student respond when campus newspapers and student government organizations attack Israel?
To help high school juniors and seniors, as well as their parents, figure out what questions to ask during a campus visit as well as what strategies to pursue when students confront difficult situations on campus, the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester and the Westchester Jewish Council offered a recent workshop at Schechter’s Hartsdale campus for about 250 people.
“This isn’t just a day school issue,” said Ron Burton, president of the Westchester Jewish Council. “This is exposing kids to the realities on campus,” adding that the group hoped to have an advocacy event next spring.
With presentations from college students, representatives of AIPAC, the Israel on Campus Coalition and others, the evening was designed to offer a way for parents and students to frame questions and form strategies. During break-out sessions, students were invited to discuss possible scenarios — like how to respond to a professor who doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, or confront anti-Israel demonstrations during orientation — and strategies, such as running counter-programming or writing opinion pieces for campus newspapers.
“It’s no longer an option to sit back and not do anything,” said Annie Peck, a New York University student who facilitated one of the student sessions.
Peck described her group’s efforts to run an Israel Peace Week to counter an Israel Apartheid Week, including hosting a falafel party in Washington Square Park.
The audience clearly squirmed in discomfort watching clips of protesters at a California campus seeking to disrupt a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and images of campus exhibits linking Israel to apartheid,.
“This is eye-opening to parents and students, the extent of animosity [to Israel] that one can find on any college campus,” said Rabbi Steven Kane of Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, Rabbi Kane who was at the event with his son, Elan, a junior at Schechter, said, “If they’re aware, they’re that much more prepared.”
Jodi Shames of White Plains, whose daughter is a Schechter junior, said, “I’m interested in what they have to say. I want her to be able to feel comfortable and have the information she needs to speak up. This is something to think about; it’s a large factor. I don’t want her to be coming up against anti-Israel sentiment.”
The message resonated with students like Eric Landsberg, a Schechter senior from Briarcliff Manor.
“This is definitely something that applies to me,” said Eric. “I’ve been in Schechter since seventh grade. Westchester is a very Jewish community. I’ve been surrounded by a Jewish bubble. I’m going to college, and I want to be able to feel as secure in my Jewish identity as a pro-Israel Jew as I’ve been here.”
As Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Israel on Campus Coalition, said, “There’s an urgent need to coordinate our community, and to counter efforts to delegitimize Israel on campus. Recognizing these issues is important before you go to campus. The most important thing is that you set the agenda.”