Amid the ongoing pandemic and rising anti-Semitism across the U.S., 40 high school juniors will take their place in front of home computer screens this Sunday as fellows of the Write On For Israel Class of 2022.
For 18 years, Write On For Israel, a project of The Jewish Week Media Group, has been educating and engaging high school students about the complexities of Israel and the Palestinian conflict, helping them become actively engaged in Jewish life on campus and leaders in the pro-Israel community.
Our mission remains as vital as ever. And yet, as we faced a new year of like no other, we asked ourselves: Could a program whose strength lies in its diversity and geographical reach, which extends beyond New York City to Connecticut and South Jersey, continue to exist in a world controlled by Covid?
By September we had our answer: The program would have to go online, at least in the first few months. We decided to approach this challenge not in terms of what we stood to lose, but by asking what we might gain. How could we make the virtual space a transformational experience and engage students in ways that aren’t even possible face to face?
We hired Tanja Sarett, the founder of Synergies in Philanthropy, whose LinkedIn profile describes her as a “liberating structures practitioner.” Together we crafted a series of seminars — shorter in length, leaving more time for breakout rooms — that focus on creating deeper personal relationships among our fellows while enhancing the learning space. With the computer as our classroom, and the only thing separating us a seven-hour time difference, we are able to add world-class thought leaders from Israel as well as Write On graduates from across the country to our speaker lineup.
The challenges of course, are not only Covid-related. How do we prepare our high schoolers for the radically changing dynamics at colleges and universities and the intellectual battles they will one day face on campus?
Nearly two decades ago, when Write On first started amidst a raging second intifada, Jewish students were defending Israel’s right to self-defense as suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in the heart of Israeli cities.
Today, they’re dealing with tensions and simmering grievances among progressive college students who single out Israel for criticism, support the movement to boycott Israel or draw far-fetched comparisons between the American civil rights movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For progressive students like Rachel Harris , a Write On graduate and sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, this has meant fighting for a seat at the table on issues she cares about.
“My main goal/struggle related to Israel right now has been figuring out how to be an active part of progressive spaces without allowing people to ‘other’ me or invalidate my progressivism because of my support of Israel,” she explains. “It has definitely been difficult for me, but I have been spending a lot of time having those tough conversations with my activist circles about what it really means to be a Zionist, and why it is actually a progressive cause, as well as separating the validity of Israel’s existence from its current leadership.”
This year’s incoming class of 11th graders, who will one day join Rachel on campus, come from 20 different high schools, public, private and Jewish, across the New York metropolitan area. Students’ Jewish religious affiliations range across the spectrum, from Reform to Modern Orthodox, as do their political views. Despite their differences, students share a strong connection to Israel, to their Jewish identity and their shared experience as teenagers.
Despite their differences, students share a strong connection to Israel, to their Jewish identity and their shared experience as teenagers.
We take pride in knowing that this is the first early engagement program of its kind, educating students about Israel’s history, the Jewish experience in America and the dynamics of pro/anti-Israel activism on campus. To our knowledge, it’s the only program that brings together students from such diverse Jewish backgrounds not only to learn together in New York (or on-line) but – even more crucially – to travel together in Israel during the students’ senior year of high school.
We look forward to new discoveries in our virtual space, working with college student advisors in Chicago and North Carolina as well as New York and New Jersey, and learning from leading thinkers in Israel who not only have written the books, but also will share their lived experience.
Nearly a full generation after Write On was born, Israel and the Middle East have changed in profound ways, as has the Jewish State’s relationship with American Jewry.
Write On’s mission however, has remained the same: to strengthen student’s connections to Israel and Jewish peoplehood; to inform their understanding of Jewish history and current events; to confront hate and anti-Semitism; to fortify their convictions no matter where they stand on Israel – left, right or center – and to train them for leadership, on campus and for all the years that follow.
Thea Wieseltier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Jewish Week Media Group’s director of educational programs, overseeing Write On For Israel. Linda Scherzer is director of Write On For Israel.
We thank The Paul E. Singer Foundation for their support of the Write On For Israel program.