An informational event for the Israel Leadership Fellows Program, which will begin its second year at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, will take place on Sept. 7
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
In a blog post for the Times of Israel, Sally Abrams relayed an e-mail exchange with a student in the class Abrams teaches as part of the Israel Leadership Fellows Program, at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis (8-16-13 AJW). The student had forwarded a video to Abrams, which “portrayed Israel in a very unflattering light.”
Abrams, co-director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas’ (JCRC) Speakers Bureau and an architect of the Israel Leadership Fellows Program, tried to offer the student some context for what she saw in the video.
“The exchange ended with [the student] writing: ‘This video made me realize that I usually think of Israel as a perfect place, but really it has problems just like any other country. Although, because it’s Israel, I feel like the problems are always blown up to shine a negative light on Israel.’”
“What Israel has achieved in just 66 years, sitting in the most hostile of neighborhoods, should inspire awe, gratitude and a sense of shared destiny,” Abrams wrote. “But first that foundation must be established. Only then will the young person be able to grapple with the reality that Israel is not ‘perfect.’ No place is.”
And establishing that foundation is exactly what Abrams and her colleagues are attempting to do with the Israel Leadership Fellows Program. Its goal is to train the next generation of young people to be strong and capable advocates for Israel.
The program completed its first year during the 2013-2014 academic year with 15 students in grades 10 through 12. It is currently recruiting students for the 2014-2015 year; an informational session will take place on Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis.
“When you look around at what is happening — especially this war between Israel and Hamas — to me, paints in bold letters what the challenge is for people who stand with Israel,” Abrams told the AJW. “The necessity of understanding and being able to explain to people what’s happening. If you just go by sound bites and images, it’s very misleading. You need to be able to give context to what they’re saying.”
The Israel Leadership Fellows Program is a collaborative project of the JCRC, Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.
Students who are accepted to the program take a 30-week class at the Talmud Torah; cultivate a relationship with a mentor from NCJW or the JCRC Speakers Bureau; attend at least three outside events; and present an end-of-year advocacy project. There are also opportunities to develop leadership, public speaking and advocacy skills, and to hear different perspectives from a varied group of guest speakers.
“The student has to have the interest in the topic, has to be seeking a leadership role,” Abrams said. “You don’t need to have a particular political bent. It’s not a right- or left-leaning thing, it’s a Jewish thing.”
Program participant Jack Bass, who will be a senior at Hopkins High School, admitted that he signed up for the program strictly due to peer pressure. But, he said, he ended up having an extremely successful experience.
“I went from being the one who was just going to be there from peer pressure to the one who probably focused the most on it and gave it the most effort,” Bass said. “I was paired up with an excellent mentor, Bob Ketroser, and we were a pretty powerful team. We set goals at the start of the year that were way, way higher than your average, and very unthinkable goals. They seemed to be practically unreachable and we made them happen.”
For his year-end advocacy project, Bass organized a group discussion for the class with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who Bass said “tends to speak very differently about Israel.”
“[Ellison] is not always the most pro-Israel, you could say, but not necessarily anti-Israel,” Bass said. “I figured it would be a really good challenge to be able to have him come and speak in an off-the-record, small group discussion… It allowed for new perspectives to be brought to the table and it was a really, really great experience.”
Bass said that since his participation in the program, he finds himself advocating for Israel “in every possible way I can.”
“If more people are not active, there’s nobody to speak for Israel,” Bass said. “You can’t rely on everyone else to speak.”
Polly Lehman said the program was “one of the coolest and amazing ways” to learn more about Israel.
“It’s not just one way to learn about Israel, you’re not just learning the facts from a textbook,” said Lehman, who will be a junior at Hopkins High School. “You get to hear Palestinian speakers, you get to hear very pro-Israel speakers, you have the opportunity to go to multiple different events and you have all the knowledge that Sally can give you, which is a lot.”
Lehman also valued the relationship she developed with her mentor, Heidi Schneider, who will co-teach the class with Abrams this year.
As her advocacy project, Lehman hosted a screening of the 2001 Israeli documentary Promises,which examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspectives of seven children living in Palestinian communities in and around Jerusalem. She gave a short presentation about Israel before the film and it was followed by discussion.
Her experience in the program also inspired Lehman to visit Israel for the first time this summer, as part of a five-week USY pilgrimage.
“I was impacted in every way, shape and form,” Lehman said. “I saw the things that I learned about.”
Lehman said the class taught her the facts about Israel and its history, and her USY experience gave her opportunities to observe daily life in the Jewish state, witness pro-Israel demonstrations in the street and spend a weekend with a host family whose son was serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Going to Israel on this trip, it gave me my own story to share. Sally and Heidi were telling me all about someone else’s story in Israel and now I have my own,” Lehman said. “So now if I were to be having a discussion with someone about Israel, if they had any questions, I could easily tell them the facts and the things that I learned with Heidi and Sally in the class, but I can also tell them, ‘By the way, I was actually there, let me tell you my own story.’”
Abrams said the program aims to offer participants the opportunity to recognize that they are part of the global Jewish community, giving them a greater sense of belonging, and to provide a variety of opinions, encouraging students to be open-minded.
“One of the really important things that we’re working with the kids on is to be nuanced in their thinking, to be able to look at multiple perspectives, to be savvy consumers of information,” she said. “The last thing we’re going to teach them is that Israel’s always right or Israel doesn’t do anything wrong. We want them to grapple with complicated issues, with tough issues.”
Abrams also believes that the program is extremely important at this point in time. In addition to Israel’s recent war with Hamas in Gaza, she cited the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and in some areas of the United States.
“We need a generation of kids that are equipped to speak to this,” she said, “that have the knowledge and the confidence and the wherewithal to respond.”
Teens who are interested in the Israel Leadership Fellows Program can attend a registration and kick-off event 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 7 at the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, 4330 Cedar Lake Rd. S., St. Louis Park. The program will begin on Wednesday, Sept. 10 at the Talmud Torah, and meet weekly through May 27, 2015. For information about the program or the Sept. 7 kick-off event, contact Sally Abrams at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-338-7816. (American Jewish World, 8.15.14)
Since 1912 the AJW has served as an important news resource for the Jewish community. The Jewish World unites the main Jewish communities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in Duluth, Rochester and smaller cities, and bridges the divides between the various Jewish religious streams.