November 18, 2019

AJC Teaches Jewish Teens Advocacy Skills

Participants in AJC's Leaders for Tomorrow program.

What is the difference between Jewish advocacy and advocacy by Jewish advocates?

Why is it called “anti-Semitism”?

What is a Jewish issue? 

Is climate change a Jewish issue?

These are just some of the questions that were asked during a recent gathering of two dozen high school students in West Los Angeles. The students, who represent a variety of area public and private schools, both Jewish and nondenominational, are participants in Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT), a program of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) designed to empower the next generation of Jewish leaders to advocate for Jews, Jewish causes and Israel.

Joanna Lieberman Snir, AJC’s deputy director for leadership development and board engagement, told the Journal the program got its start in New York five years ago after an area student approached AJC CEO David Harris. The student said one of his teachers had repeatedly expressed anti-Israel sentiment and he wasn’t sure how to respond. The student’s mother was active with AJC. 

They asked AJC “to put together a program to help students like him to respond,” Lieberman Snir said. “AJC’s leadership was really inspired by this notion.” 

Shortly thereafter, the first cohort of LFT students began meeting. A facilitator steers the discussions. The next year, the program kicked off in Chicago. Currently, there are 12 groups across the country, including the one in Los Angeles, which started last year. Each group of teens, primarily high school sophomores and juniors, meets approximately seven times over the course of the school year. The students also gather in Washington, D.C., in the spring. Other than that trip, there is no cost to participate, but students do go through an application process that includes both a written portion and an interview. Prior Jewish advocacy work is not required. 

“One of the great things about the LFT program is we have students coming at it with varying perspectives, varying backgrounds,” Lieberman Snir said. “We also have many students who haven’t really been previously engaged in the Jewish community at all.”

“It’s really preparing me for the future and the reality of being Jewish.”
— Sydney Luchs

At each meeting, there is a general session topic, which can include “Israeli Society Today,” “Being Jewish on the College Campus,” and “AJC’s Global Approach to Advocacy.”

“The idea at the end of the day is students are having a comparable experience with comparable takeaways,” said Zev Hurwitz, the Los Angeles facilitator and AJC’s director of campus affairs. 

At the first session, which took place in September and focused on Jewish identity, there was a combination of group discussion, small group and partner activities, and, finally, circling back and sharing. The students also created maps of their own Jewish identities. For the second meeting in late October, participants were joined by representatives from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Youth Council and heard from Sgt. Mike Abdeen of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, who spoke about the rise in hate crimes and how to help, as well as Tim Zaal, a former white supremacist who now is a regular presenter at the Museum of Tolerance.

Hurwitz likes to give the teens plenty of room to go where discussions take them or pivot if current events dictate a response. “If students have siblings who have experienced troubling activity in college, we will definitely make time to have those conversations,” he said.

Participant Sydney Luchs, 15, a sophomore at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, told the Journal she applied because “I’ve noticed that anti-Semitism has become almost normalized in the political environment right now. As a person who wants to work in politics in the future, I wanted to figure out how to be an advocate for Israel but didn’t have the tool set to do it.”

She added that the program does a good job in teaching people how to be advocates. “So far, I’ve learned a lot of facts on how you deal with things. It’s really preparing me for the future and the reality of being Jewish.”