When he took the dais Monday morning to kick off that day’s installment of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke with urgency about the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, the importance of Israel on the world stage and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
The message struck a chord with the 24 students from the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School who had trekked to Washington, D.C., to join the expected 14,000 fellow attendees as one of the conference’s larger high school delegations. For 10th-grader Daniel Goldman, the speech from the 2008 Republican nominee for president typified the energy AIPAC works to harness every year.
“I personally liked everyone’s passion, especially John McCain,” said Goldman. “It was really empowering.”
The day before, the students danced onstage with an African-American preacher from Detroit, who turned the conference into a hands-clapping gospel frenzy, and had lunch with other Baltimore-area AIPAC attendees. On Monday, in addition to McCain’s foreign policy talk, they heard from Israeli tech company representatives and attended talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the state of Israeli innovation.
For the students, who were in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, AIPAC gave them a chance to hear about the benefits of the U.S.-Israel relationship, technological innovations and political issues and, for some, to further their support for Israel.
“It makes me really want to look at the situation with a more optimistic point of view,” said Emma Silverman, a 10th-grader. “I think it’s incredible to see so many people come together for Israel.”
The students would meet with six different federal representatives on Tuesday.
Max Meizlish, a Beth Tfiloh graduate who is now president of Terps for Israel at the University of Maryland, College Park, was attending his fourth AIPAC policy conference this week. When he attended his first with Beth Tfiloh, he was reeled in by the diverse crowd that came together for the cause of Israel. He continues to be inspired by the beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he said.
Meizlish, whose organization was named as student activists of the year by AIPAC, hopes to secure some kind of public policy position, perhaps in lobbying.
“The point [of the activism] is to show people there is a strong community out there that supports this relationship,” he explained. “It’s much more than what you see on the news.”
For Meizlish and others, the U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t just a Jewish issue, it’s an American issue, and one in which he hopes to engage other campus leaders.
Photos by Marc Shapiro
“They see they can make a substantive impact on [others] the rest of their lives,” he said.
The adult leaders from Baltimore took a similar approach. Pro-Israel activist Bill Fox said a huge part of the AIPAC gathering is education on the issues, the facts and the movement’s strategies. Fox, who sits on AIPAC’s national council, is chairman of the mid-Atlantic region of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and chairman of Maryland for Israel Bonds; he said he leaves AIPAC armed with the right information.
“Far too many of our co-religionists do not feel that connection [to Israel],” he explained. “I feel it’s very important to do whatever I can do to try to help Jews connect and reconnect with Israel and the importance of Israel.”
Connecting with Israel, for some, means being aware of certain realities in the Middle East.
“People don’t grasp that in Iran, America is the big Satan,” said P.J. Pearlstone, vice chair of the Baltimore District Council of AIPAC, a member of the board of directors of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and incoming chair of the Pearlstone Center. “Before they say death to Israel, they say death to America.”
Ellen Lightman, co-chair of the Baltimore-Israel Coalition, said Iran is a major source of frustration among activists, but AIPAC is reinvigorating.
“Coming to the policy conference not only puts things in perspective, but also re-energizes one’s spirit to continue activism,” she said. “A nuclear Iran will change the world; it will not only change Israel. Coming here underscores the big picture of why we do what we do.”
ALSO READ, AIPAC 2014: IRAN TOPS AGENDA.
And AIPAC is more than just an educational opportunity, attendees were quick to point out. With an opportunity to interact with and lobby legislators, attendees see their convictions in action.
“I feel like I can actually make a difference,” said Pearlstone. “Here, we can really see moving the needle.”
That mission was not lost on the conference’s younger attendees. Alex Friedman, an eighth-grader at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore and son of former president and chairman of AIPAC’s board, Howard Friedman ñ who is also the chairman of the board of The Associated ñ was excited to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak firsthand about Israel and its issues.
“The security of Israel and America’s health is essential to the world for generations to come,” he said.
For high school students going to college in the fall, they said, walking into each of the plenary sessions and seeing the thousands of like-minded attendees offers a sense of the enormity and unity of AIPAC.
“Last year [at AIPAC], I left with a sense of ‘wow!’ “ said Avi Shidman, a senior at Pikesville High School. “I feel that every American Jew owes Israel a part of their spirit.”
Shidman, along with fellow Pikesville senior Jory Parson, felt armed with the skills and knowledge to serve as ambassadors of the Jewish people and Israel. Parson will attend the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall, which has an active and large Jewish community. Shidman will attend the University of Alabama, where he knows he will be among the minority.
“It’s very inspiring as an 18-year-old male going into the world, into college, next year,” said Parson. “We’ll be able to articulate who we are and stand up for our people.”