On Sunday February 25, the NJ NCSY LEAD students presented their research on Israel to a panel of judges of top Israel policy advocates in the Metropolitan area: Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, New Jersey Regional Director Orthodox Union Advocacy Center; David Miller, Director of North America Masa Israel Journey; and Jackie Retig, Director of Academic Affairs for the Israeli consulate.
LEAD, headed by Miriam Brander, is NJ NCSY’s leadership training program. Over 40 high school juniors apply to the program each year and twelve are selected by a committee of NJ NCSY staff in preparation for their role as regional board members during their senior year of high school.
The Sunday Israel discussion was designed for the LEAD students to learn how to address the vast majority of the American population, both Jewish and secular, who have little-to-no opinion on the state of Israel and whom the students will encounter when they attend college. “In America today, Israel has a strong support base of about 20% of the population. On the other hand, about 10% of Americans are decidedly against Israel,” noted Retig. “Initiatives such as the LEAD program, which focus on being proactive and positive when communicating Israel’s story to the moveable middle, are not only incredibly important but also strategic.”
The program was launched in 2013 by Rabbi Ethan Katz, now the Regional Director of NJ NCSY. This was the first year judges were asked to comment on the students’ findings.
Rabbi Katz began the session with his vision for how he hopes to change the way young Jewish students talk about Israel. Instead of constantly responding to, and defending against, accusations of Israeli military and human rights violations, Katz, a former soldier in the Israeli army, envisions a new dialogue that instead focuses on the incredible scientific, technological and social advancements of the tiny Israeli society. “Can you imagine if New Jersey,” the approximate same size and population of Israel, “produced even 1/10th of what Israel did,” said Rabbi Katz.
“It’s time to move towards the positive,” added Rabbi Pruzansky. We can’t always be on the defensive. A program like this will generate enthusiasm.”
The LEAD students were divided into four groups and each presented diligent research on their assigned topic: Rachel Eckstein and Eli Hyman on advancements in environmental protection; Sophia Stepansky, Yosef Schatz and Rivka Lichtenstein spoke about social action and Israeli help in disaster relief efforts; Anna Kaplan, Sarah Rogers and Eli Englard presented on Israel’s growing technology sector; and Tova Felsenthal, Arielle Weinberger and Noam Annenberg researched Israeli medical and pharmaceutical contributions.
The judges provided constructive criticism on the technical aspects of public speaking, as well as asking targeted questions that challenged the LEAD participants to defend their findings. Although, as Rabbi Katz said, the students were “not there to defend a dissertation,” it was clear that they all had done the research and background work necessary to build a comprehensive report, and were well prepared to respond. “It was a great opportunity to learn about Israel and strengthen my presentation skills,” said Anna Kaplan, a student at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.
The research goals also provided an opportunity for the students to build an intellectual connection with Israel, where many of whom will study for a year after high school. “The presentation has inspired me to learn more about my Jewish homeland” said Sarah Rogers, a student at Mayanot. Eli Hyman, who studies at TABC said that “learning about so many of Israel’s amazing contributions to the world made me incredibly proud to be able to call Israel my homeland.”
In conversations after the program, the judges all used the same word to describe their feelings about the students: “Impressed.”
“The presentations by the LEAD participants were thoughtful and well researched,” said Miller. “Their passion for Israel and the Jewish People when they presented was very inspiring.”
This past week, the LEAD students travelled to AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C. to further their skills in Israel advocacy and discuss techniques with other students from across the country.
By Zachary Schrieber