With anti-Israel sentiment and support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement growing on many college campuses, Jewish high school students applying to college often feel unprepared to defend their beliefs.
Since 2012, StandWithUs has run a program to give several high school students each year the opportunity to serve as interns and learn about Israel advocacy. The program features two conferences a year at which students learn the history, strategy and efficacy of sharing their pro-Israel beliefs now and when they head to college in the future.
After an extensive application process that includes a written application and an interview with Rayna Exelbierd, the Southeast high school coordinator for StandWithUs, two students from the Atlanta area were selected for the internship and attended this summer’s conference: Zoie Wittenberg from Atlanta Jewish Academy and Alyssa Levitt from Milton High School.
“We’re looking for people who are leaders in their communities,” Exelbierd said. “It’s important they are passionate, articulate, and really understand Israel and why it’s so important to us.”
The two seniors spent Aug. 8 to 11 in Los Angeles at American Jewish University with the rest of the 84 high school interns from across the country to learn tactics and methods as Israel advocates.
“The most interesting thing I learned was how to use media and social media effectively,” Levitt said. “I’ve always loved and researched Israel, but I’ve never known how to use that research effectively.”
Levitt, who is an alumna of NFTY’s Eisendrath International Experience, which sends high school students to Israel for a semester of learning and immersion, said the biggest shock about the conference was how many people passionate about Israel were in the same room.
Wittenberg, who was part of an AJA group that delivered matzah to Jews in Azerbaijan in the spring, said she was amazed by how much the conference covered in just four days. “I learned as much there as I do in an entire semester at school,” she said. “Most importantly, I learned to combat anti-Israel and BDS groups and individuals. It taught me what an appropriate response was and how to form one.”
Aside from the conference, the students are tasked with planning and leading three pro-Israel programs during the school year. The conference provided some examples, but the interns were encouraged to be creative and make the events their own.
“I’m looking forward to doing something specifically about women in Israel,” Levitt said. “Everything from the everyday life of women there to specific figures like Golda Meir who are important parts of Israeli history.”
Exelbierd said the goal of the programs is to bring Israel’s story and history to new audiences, something the internship itself accomplishes by opening its doors to non-Jewish applicants, including the first one from the Southeast this year.
“Students here are getting things to put on their résumés,” Exelbierd said. “But the hope is that they grow so much in their time with us that it’s more than that. We want to nurture their passions for Israel.”
Wittenberg said she has not heard much anti-Israel sentiment in recent years while attending a Jewish school, but she recognizes that “it definitely exists. I’ve always felt equipped to answer difficult questions, but StandWithUs has taught me how to combine facts with good communication skills to really tackle the core of the questions.”
While their internships are just beginning, Wittenberg and Levitt said they’ve had their eyes opened to all the opportunities for Israel advocacy within their communities and in a global context.
“I would 100 percent recommend this to anyone passionate about Israel,” Wittenberg