Jews at home and abroad are facing an increased level of antisemitism online and in person in wake of the recent violence between Hamas and Israel. With the deluge of misinformation and vitriol being shared, it has been more common for people to not share an opinion or fact about the situation for fear they will be verbally or physically attacked.
For a group of 20 metropolitan Detroit high schoolers, they have been able to meet the moment thanks to their participation in the inaugural cohort of a program with the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Leaders for Tomorrow, or LFT, is AJC’s education and advocacy program for teens entering their sophomore or junior year of high school. It enables young Jewish leaders to advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, Israel and human rights around the world, as well as to serve as positive change agents for their peers and community. Participants build a strong Jewish identity and leave the program equipped to advocate anywhere from TikTok to Capitol Hill. Active in 16 cities in the United States, LFT came to Detroit last fall due to a generous gift from the William Davidson Foundation to AJC. Throughout the school year, students took part in several experiential, discussion-based sessions every few weeks.
Over the last several weeks, cohort members were able to use the tools they learned in the program in real time. Said Hannah Goodman, AJC’s Detroit Young Leadership Associate, “I had one student reach out to me with an Instagram post from a peer that contained antisemitic tropes and misinformation about the conflict. She wanted to respond but did not know what to say. I asked her to send me a draft of how she wanted to respond. What I received from her was completely spot on without my help. That is a direct testament to the LFT curriculum and leadership skills of these teens.”
Members of the cohort, who are currently completing the program, came from public schools, Jewish day schools and secular private schools and practice their faith on a spectrum. Each also brought with them a different relationship with Israel and experience with antisemitism.
“Having a diverse group of students was crucial to the LFT Detroit experience,” said Goodman, who worked with AJC’s national Young Leadership team and the local JCRC/AJC office to seek applicants.
Added Goodman, “I found that our high schoolers have a clear desire and need for nuanced conversations around Israel and antisemitism, especially before stepping onto a college campus. With BDS movements growing stronger and more vocal, Jewish students are finding themselves on the defensive. A lack of knowledge can lead to students either disengaging from any dialogue about Israel, distrusting information from Jewish institutions or feeling pressured to leave their Zionism at the door in various spaces. Unfortunately, biased sources, including peers, media and even their professors, can propel Jewish students to “pick sides” in order to be welcomed as a Jew.”
Elana Hochbaum, a current junior at Farber Hebrew Day School – Yeshivat Akiva, applied to LFT to gain the skills she will need in order to be a good advocate when she inevitably leaves her comfortable community.
“I’ve been lucky enough not to have to deal with very much antisemitism in my day-to-day life. I have grown up in a very supportive Jewish community. I live in a neighborhood that has many Jews, I go to a Jewish school and most of my friends are Jewish,” said Hochbaum. “I know antisemitism is much too common an occurrence in these times and I hear about it often, but because I live in an insulated Jewish community, I haven’t had to deal with it directed toward me…I know this will change when I go to college.”
Speaking of what she learned during her participation, Hochbaum noted, “…I have learned some Israeli and Jewish history which provides context to the issues Jews and Israel face today…how anti-Zionism and antisemitism can overlap and how someone can criticize Israel’s government without questioning Israel’s right to exist. I’ve gained skills in advocacy and learned that advocacy doesn’t just mean pushing facts into someone’s face and alienating them. Advocacy takes many different forms…”
Also noticing benefits from participation in LFT is Danny Samson, whose daughter, Abby, 16, was also in the cohort.
“During this past year, Abby has adopted a greater sense of awareness regarding pressing Jewish issues such as antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has developed a strong interest in advocating for herself and for others regarding issues she believes important.
We are hopeful that Abby will use the LFT program as a foundation to continue to develop leadership skills and to help her play a meaningful role in the Jewish community and community-at-large…These types of programs often serve as a catalyst for young people to develop their values and leadership skills.”
Applications for the second cohort, which will begin in the fall, are due no later than July 15 and can be completed at https://www.ajc.org/lftinfo. Preference will be given to incoming sophomores and juniors. Contact Hannah Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.