The more I know, the more I care. The more I care, the stronger I want to be.
These past few weeks have been devastating for everyone in our community. My mind, like all of ours, has been racing, constantly looking for more updates and information about the current events in Israel and Gaza. Honestly, I did not think it would be this difficult for me.
Israel advocacy was not something I ever really thought I would be involved in. Until last year, it was something that was important but not particularly relevant in my life. But at the beginning of 10th grade, I became the speaker of the committee for my school’s Israel Political Action Club (MIPAC). This meant that every Monday, I would speak after davening about the current events in Israel, ranging from new technology made by Israeli companies to terror attacks. Speaking about Israel made me more invested in keeping up with the news and understanding what was going on across the world.
In the winter, my committee advisor approached me and asked if I would be interested in applying for a StandWithUs internship for teens in 11th and 12th grade to learn how to defend Israel, the only Jewish State in the world, and fight against antisemitism. I applied and was accepted. Eventually, after many weeks of deliberating with my parents, I accepted the internship and did not think about it very much again until August. I did not know how much it would transform my life in a matter of months.
The StandWithUs National High School Internship conference was in Los Angeles in early August. I knew I would be one of about 150 interns who came from all over North America and had varying levels of Jewish observance. When people asked me what I was going to do at the conference, I could not really tell them anything except: “I will learn how to defend the State of Israel and combat antisemitism.” Oh, just how much did I not know!
Our introductory learning session was on a Monday morning. Those few hours were eye opening and really changed my view of the world. The session was called “Antisemitism: Telling Our Stories.” Soon after it started, a staff member leading the presentation asked, “Who here has experienced personal antisemitism?” Almost 130 hands went up … there were 130 interns in the room. My hand didn’t go up. Why? Because I haven’t personally experienced antisemitism. I, as many of us do, live in a community where I am so fortunate to be sheltered. We do not have everyday experiences of hate, fear and vulnerability. But in that moment, I felt the most vulnerable I had ever felt. How could I be one of, if not the only, Jewish teenager in the room who had not experienced this? These were teens my age, some of whom live very close to me, and they are living such a different reality than I do. I almost could not bring myself to believe it.
But then, somehow, it got worse. Interns were invited to share their stories with the group. About 10 kids lined up. One by one, they started telling their stories, and one by one, more and more people stood up and joined the line, and one by one, they told horrific stories of things that had been said and done to them. I was astonished. I felt almost ashamed that I did not know what was happening in my country, in my state, right around me. I wondered if somebody else needed this internship more than I did; why was I even here if I didn’t need help combating anti-semitism or if I didn’t need support to help me process my own experiences? How could I possibly understand?
Throughout the conference, we had breakout meetings with the other interns in our region. (I am in the Tri-State region.) There were many discussions about antisemitism in America and what Jewish teenagers experience everyday. I was silent; I barely spoke the entire conference, wondering how I could say anything when I did not have, and might never have, any experience like those I was hearing about.
I went home after five days of sessions about advocacy, legal matters and handling conflict. I wanted to make sure I used what I had learned and I found a way to be an effective and valuable StandWithUs intern. I realized that I had a particular role as an intern: I had the opportunity to educate and inform others in our community about what is happening in our world everyday. There is so much we do not see or hear, and Baruch Hashem we do not, but people need to know what others experience.
In school, I started to talk to some of my friends about my experience, but more importantly, others’ experiences. After Sukkot, the question of antisemitism became front and center for all of us. I, along with the rest of my peers in our Jewish communities, started to see the atrocities on college campuses and in other towns. That happens everyday now, though thankfully I am still sheltered from it for the most part. These past few weeks, my chats with the other StandWithUs interns have been filled with texts such as, “I’m scared to wear white and blue tomorrow because my school said they cannot send out an email, as it would offend the Palestinians and Muslims in my school.” Or,“I’m scared to wear my Star of David. What if I get beat up?” Or,“I found a swastika carved into my school’s bathroom and do not know what to do.”
Almost everyone reading The Jewish Link newspaper this Shabbos would never have to say such a thing. Of course we can wear white and blue! Of course we can wear IDF sweatshirts! We do not have to think twice about speaking up against anti-Zionism and antisemitism! We are fighting with chesed, prayers, advocacy and donations. Incredibly, there are so many others, others in much harder positions, who are also fighting.
These are some of the inspiring comments I have heard from fellow interns: “I saw a swastika in the bathroom, so I made the shape into a window, as a sign that there will be a way out of this,” or “I wrote עם ישראל חי on my hand because people don’t know what it means, but I do, and I am proud of it.” These words have moved me, and I hope that as you read them, it moves you as well. The work I did at StandWithUs to learn how to combat antisemitism has become painfully even more relevant.
In the Jewish community, we have Torah learning, traditions and values that will see us through this hard time. I am so proud to be part of a community that is full of support and love, a community that during such a dark hour has done chesed after chesed, said Tehillim upon Tehillim, and advocated for Israel and our People. עם ישראל חי—let all of our prayers be answered, let our chayalim and chayalot be safe and successful in their mission, and let us all be back in a peaceful Israel soon.
Sophie Fine is a junior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. She is a 2023-2024 StandWithUs Kenneth Leventhal High School Intern.