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For American teens in Israel, the war brings lessons in resilience and caring

This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — On a night where students at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah would typically be up late learning Torah, they were taking shifts volunteering at a local grocery store. Students restocked shelves for Yesh Chessed, a grocery store in Beit Shemesh facing staffing shortages amid the war in Israel. Their support allowed the store to remain open and serve Israeli families.

“The entire general vibe of all of Israel right now is, ‘If you can help, you help,’” Eli Cohen, a recent high school graduate from Atlanta, Georgia on a gap year at Lev HaTorah, said while tying tzizit garments to send to soldiers.

Participants in Israel-based gap-year programs like Lev HaTorah have joined nearly half of all Israelis in volunteering in the weeks since Hamas launched an attack killing 1,200 Israelis and causing the army to mobilize roughly 360,000 reservists. For some programs, however, adapting to the situation in Israel has not been easy.

The war in Israel forced gap-year programs, which attract high school students, recent graduates and college students from abroad for extended stays in Israel, to adjust their routines on short notice. Schools now accommodate increased student volunteerism in their schedules. Many programs are overcoming staffing shortages as faculty and staff join reserve duty or need to support their families. Schools have placed added focus on the safety and well being of their students and faculty.

Amid the crisis, some students chose to leave their programs in Israel. Masa Israel Journey, a nonprofit that oversees many gap-year programs, began the year with 5,700 fellows in Israel. Around 4,000 remain during the war, with a portion of those who initially left now returning.

And some programs suspended their activities altogether. Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a study abroad program for teens, sent its roughly 160 students back to America in order to relieve its staff members, according to JD Krebs, a school spokesperson, and not for safety concerns. “We have an entire staff and faculty made up of Israelis who are affected by the war,” Krebs told JTA. “We felt we needed to give them the time they needed to spend with their families.”

Before their homebound chartered flight on Oct. 12, Muss students launched a fundraising page, which raised over $120,000 for those impacted by the war. In addition, they made 1,600 care packages for displaced families.  

Programs that remain open in Israel struggle with staffing issues as well. Several counselors at Aardvark Israel, a gap-year program that offers studies and internships in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, left for reserve duty. Emma Flanders, an Aardvark admissions coordinator, said that other staff members fill in vacancies. “We’re a very close staff and very close community,” said Flanders. “That’s our friends on the frontline. Of course, I’m going to go in, help them and help their students.”

Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Beit Shemesh, Israel hosted a carnival for local families and children whose schools were closed amid the war. (Yeshivat Lev HaTorah)

Aardvark student Donovan Ahlquist, 18, said that many of his peers returned to America out of safety concerns. Still, he said that the students and counselors who remain have grown more connected to each other. “It’s really wonderful having people here to talk to about it,” said Ahlquist, “because we’re all going through the same… deeply traumatic event.”

By staying in Israel, Ahlquist said that he knows he is helping the country and its people in a time of need. “Without Israel, we have nothing,” he said. “Israel is our home. Israel is everything.”

Ahlquist’s original goal of personal growth for his gap year remains unchanged, even as he supports Israel through the crisis. “While I’m here, I can stay here and help out as much as I can,” said the New Orleans teen. “Then I know that I’m being useful, and I am still going to grow as a person.”

In response to the war, Aardvark has been trying to foster unity amongst its students. “A lot of what we’ve been doing is actually bringing the students together more than they might be used to,” Aardvark’s Flanders said. The gap year program now allocates time for more community-building events such as movie nights and yoga classes.

Aardvark also strives to maintain a sense of normalcy by encouraging students to continue their classes and internships, even virtually when necessary.

Some programs shifted entirely to virtual classes. Israel XP, a gap-year program at Bar-Ilan University, originally planned for its students to arrive on Oct. 10, three days after the war in Israel began. “We unfortunately had to delay the arrival of our students, but we have begun classes on Zoom,” Natalie Menaged, chief operating officer of Israel XP at Bar-Ilan University, told JTA. “We look forward to welcoming our students to Israel as soon as we can.”

Those that can continue operating in Israel use the opportunity to help Israeli communities in a time of crisis. On top of their normal classes, students at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a Jerusalem-based seminary, spend hours preparing packages for soldiers and craft kits for children who cannot attend school. Director of Programming Cheryl Burnat said that the seminary also hosted a community camp with activities for kids and a space for parents to relax over breakfast.

An Aardvark Israel student volunteering in the date farms at Kibbutz Ketura, near Eilat, where participants in the gap-year program spent a week after the initial attacks decompressing, volunteering and helping displaced families from Israeli towns near the Gaza border. (Aardvark Israel)

Lindenbaum student Jemima Schoen said that volunteering and dedicating her Torah study to Israeli soldiers helps lift her spirits and lessen her anxiety over the war. Schoen, an 18-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, added that her presence in Israel gives her a different perspective of Israeli resilience. Unlike those in America who tend to focus on the tragedies presented in the news from afar, “here in Israel, people are really trying to move forward, help out and change things for the good,” she said.

Programs say they prioritize the security and mental well-being of their students, particularly in response to the situation in Israel. Students at Lev HaTorah now need their parents’ permission to leave the neighborhood, and the yeshiva makes an effort to keep students near shelters should a siren sound.

Staff members “have a personal investment in every single student, and the doors are always open, even in normal times,” said Ariella Mendlowitz, a spokesperson for Lev HaTorah. During the war, she said, the staff increased their availability to students.

Lev HaTorah also supports members of Lev LaChayal, its program for lone soldiers, or soldiers from abroad who often don’t have family in Israel. Yeshiva students gather and package essentials to send to former Lev HaTorah students who now serve in the Israel Defense Forces without immediate family members in the country.

The yeshiva wants its students to know that, through their initiatives, students are “staying here for a purpose,” said Mendlowitz.

Cohen was glad he decided to stay in Israel. “I can be here and I can make whatever difference that I can make, whether it’s absolutely miniscule or on a larger scale,” he said. Cohen said he no longer feels like an American visitor on a gap year but like an active contributor to Israeli society. “You never think you actually will wake up one day, at least from the American perspective, and see rockets flying through the sky,” he said. “It’s a call to action and a call to responsibility.”

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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