By Shira Kramer
How often do high school students have the opportunity to join hundreds of people who are passionate about the same things they are? This is not easy to find under normal times, and even more so during the pandemic. However, I found this at StandWithUs’ annual international conference, Israel In Focus. Held virtually on Jan. 30 and 31, the conference saw attendance from more than 1000 high school and college students and community members worldwide who share a love of Israel.
I first heard about StandWithUs through Project Israel, a joint NCSY-SWU program coordinated by NCSY Baltimore City Coordinator Mordi Spero and StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic High School Coordinator Nathan Altshuler. At the first mention of an organization whose sole mission is to support Israel and fight anti-Semitism worldwide, I knew I had to get involved. After joining StandWithUs’ Teen Leadership Council and learning more about Israel’s history, I wanted to go to the next level and decided to participate in the conference.
There were plenaries with speakers that included Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy discussing identity and peoplehood, and another about the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates’ Omar Al Busaidy and Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hasan-Nahoum moderated by SWU Israel Executive Director Michael Dickson. Others had SWU Leventhal High School interns and college Emerson fellows in conversation with SWU CEO Roz Rothstein, about how they overcame anti-Semitism at their schools. I was impressed with how well the conference was organized, and the attention to detail that every speaker showed was evident in every word.
There were specific tracks for high school students. At the mid-Atlantic regional breakout, Nathan had us share a goal we had for the conference. Mine was easy to identify because I knew StandWithUs could provide it: perspectives from people from disparate backgrounds that are vastly different from mine.
At one plenary, we heard from Hussein Aboubakr, StandWithUs educator, and Yoseph Haddad, the CEO of Together Vouch for Each Other.
Aboubakr spoke about growing up in Cairo hearing about the “Zionist pigs” everywhere he turned. He decided to research his “enemies” and was shocked to find out that reality was very different. He was jailed and tortured for his beliefs and writings and finally found asylum in the U.S.
In contrast, Israeli-Arab activist Haddad grew up in Israel surrounded by different faiths. To Haddad, they “were all human beings and Israelis” and should be friends. He founded Together Vouch for Each Other to demolish stereotypes and to connect the Arab sector with Israeli society. It was evident in Aboubakr and Haddad’s voices that they truly cared for Israel and erasing the hate and misinformation.
At the “Intersectionality: Building Bridges, Ensuring Inclusion for the Pro-Israel Community” plenary, we heard from Alma Hernandez, a state representative of Arizona’s 3rd District. She identifies as pro-Israel, Jewish and Latina and feels connected to her identities. She shared that, “People think you have to leave one identity at the door,” but you shouldn’t have to, your different identities make you who you are.
As a student at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, Israel education is part of the curriculum. I joined the Advanced Israel Education session in my high school track to further my knowledge. One presenter, Tshepo Ndlovu, spoke about the connections between South Africa and Israel. As a proud South African and supporter of Israel, Ndlovu educated us on communism in South Africa and the African Resistance Movement.
These speakers love Israel, and their differing backgrounds provided a new perspective and viewpoint. I learned things a regular classroom could never teach; you cannot teach feelings and first-hand experiences.
The conference emphasized community. As high school students, hearing about campus anti-Semitism can be daunting. No one wants to encounter it, so it’s important to know that StandWithUs provides resources for college students such as the Saidoff Legal Department, the Center for Combating Antisemitism and the research team. As Nathan Altshuler revealed, “Once you are a part of the StandWithUs family, you are a part of the family forever.”
Going forward, I plan to utilize the new information I learned and share it with others. I heard from many people who do amazing things for Israel on a day-to-day basis, but I know that there is much more that still needs to be done. However, I now know that together, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.
Shira Kramer is a junior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School. She is the president of the Baltimore Chapter of NCSY and involved in the StandWithUs Mid-Atlantic Teen Leadership Council.