Empowering Students to Advocate for Israel

Last year the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey embarked on a unique program for teens: the iCAN Answer Now Conference. Its goal is to provide Jewish high school students with facts about Israel as they enter college and beyond. Donna Weintraub, iCAN conference chair and Federation board member, stated, “We wanted to empower Jewish teens to find their Israel story and learn what’s happening on college campuses.”  

Federation will sponsor an all-day leadership conference at Dwight Englewood School on March 18 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but also runs a year-round iCAN leadership program, hosting students from across Bergen County from grades 9 through 12. Forty students are currently involved, representing over a dozen public, private and Jewish day schools.

The program began in the fall of 2017 and since then, students have met once or twice a month at Federation, with a different organization and Israel-related topic represented each time. Among those who have already appeared are The David Project, StandWithUs and Hasbara Fellowships. iCAN’s orchestration with key organizations has maximized the level of information discussed, so students are better prepared to respond to false and misleading statements. The program will culminate in the March 18 leadership conference and the plan is to repeat the program again in September.  

Paul Friedman, tri-state high school coordinator for StandWithUs, was the presenter at the February 15 session. The topic was Israeli technology and innovation. Although he mixed it up with slides, short videos and brief commentary, the vast majority of time was spent engaged in discussion with the students. He began by discussing examples of Israeli innovation, including  mobile technology, USB sticks, drip irrigation and desalinization, followed by the lesser-known ReWalk device for spinal cord injuries, OrCam vision system for the blind, Moovit app to get around on public transportation in foreign countries, Mobileye technology for autonomous vehicles and an indispensible innovation for rescue operations and urban combat that enables users to see through walls.

Friedman spoke of the irony that members of the BDS Movement use Israeli technology all the time, and that its co-founder received his degree from Tel Aviv University. He noted that Israel has over 700 startups, second only to Silicon Valley.

During the discussion, Na’ama Kaye of Teaneck, who is a junior at The Frisch School, noted that South Africa had turned down Israel’s offer to help with its water shortage. The conversation then took a turn to discuss Israel and the BDS claims of apartheid. Friedman posed the questions “Does Israel have separate bathrooms for Jews and Palestinians? Are Palestinians allowed to vote? Can they attend university?” He gave example after example of conditions that had made South Africa an apartheid state but that weren’t present in Israel. He concluded with the observation about the hypocrisy of “Middle Eastern countries that call Israel an apartheid state, yet discriminate, persecute and even expel their minority populations, clearly denying them the same rights that Israel grants to all its citizens under the law.”

Heather Yung, a junior at Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, explained how the experience personally benefits her. “It helps me learn advocacy and structure it in a way where I feel comfortable and can speak anywhere.”

Kaye echoed that sentiment, adding, “What makes iCAN special is that it gives you a chance to get to know others who care about Israel and its well-being as much as you do.”

Weintraub stressed that the program is intentional in not telling the students what to think but how “to distinguish anti-Semitism from legitimate criticism and debate about Israel.”

Ariella Noveck, the Federation’s Jewish community relations director, is coordinating much of the iCAN program effort. She reiterated the uniqueness of a program that “allows Jewish kids from different backgrounds to all come together and relate on the same topic.” Regarding the upcoming March 18 event at Dwight Englewood School she noted, “If only I had a program like the Jewish Federation’s iCAN program in high school, I would have been able to protect and defend my home: Israel.”

The March 18 iCAN conference is open to high school students grades 9-12. Nearly a dozen organizations will be on hand, including the earlier mentioned StandWithUs, The David Project and Hasbara Fellowships, as well as others such as The Israeli-American Council (IAC), Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), Israel Action Network (IAN), the fraternity AEPi and others. The conference will host an Israeli market (shuk) and a resource fair. Kosher lunch and snacks will be provided. There will be a parent program from 3 to 4 p.m. on how to prepare kids for the college campus challenges they may face. Parents are invited to stay for the final hour to join the teens and legislators at the shuk and resource fair. The entire event is free.

To register for the conference, please visit https://www.jfnnj.org/calendar/ican/.

For more information, contact Noveck at AriellaN@jfnnj.org or 201-820-3944.