We hear about defaced Jewish headstones, anti-Israel rhetoric, and alarming statistics of a rise in violent incidents against Jews around the world.
But there are many glimmers of hope, too.
I discovered one such sign of promise recently while sitting in a Wilmette high school classroom. I was observing a world religion class in action at Loyola Academy, a private Jesuit school. With the teacher Chris Howe's blessing, this class-the most popular senior elective at the school-was taken over by student teachers for the entire period.
These teachers--representing all three primary branches of Judaism--were there as part of the "Student to Student" initiative, through which Jewish teens spend an hour teaching their peers in schools with little to no Jewish population about Judaism. The mission of the program is to break down stereotypes and combat ignorance and antisemitism before they ever have a chance to flourish. Launched by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in the early '90s, the initiative has been replicated in four other cities, including Chicago, beginning this school year.
Here, the program was started by Ida Crown Jewish history teacher, Alissa Zeffren, and her students, with funding from Ida Crown and a grant from the St. Louis JCRC. Zeffren had first learned of the initiative years ago from her husband, who participated in the program when he himself was a high school student in St. Louis.
Then, last year, the idea came back around to some of the Ida Crown students and Zeffren while at a NCSY Jewish Unity Mentoring Program (JUMP) leadership conference. When asked to pick an advocacy project, the teens chose to adapt St. Louis' Student to Student initiative in Chicago.
They were drawn to the program because students attending Jewish high school can find themselves living in a bubble. "It's so important," Zeffren said, "that we empower our students earlier in life to develop the language and communication skills to be able to explain what they believe and why they believe it to a wider audience."
Chicago is in its pilot year of the program, with 30 Jewish teens-20 from Ida Crown and 10 from Rochelle Zell Jewish High School and various public schools-visiting high schools around the metropolitan area. The Jewish student teachers took part in 2.5 hours of Jewish educational and advocacy training before making their way into the classrooms.
"Who would like to get married today?" one of the Jewish teens asked the Loyola Academy students as part of the hour-long crash course in Judaism and Jewish culture. Two volunteers came to the front of the classroom and the Jewish students held up a tallit , chuppah-style, over the "bride and groom." "Mazal tov!" the Jewish students shouted, and everyone in the room cheered.
The Student to Student curriculum covers many aspects of Jewish life and practice: lifecycle events; a quick summary of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism; a lesson in Kashrut 101; an explanation of Torah on one foot; and a taste of Shabbat.
The Jewish students then give a short historical lesson on the Holocaust--which included passing around a heavy book with the word "Jew" written six million times to illustrate that massive number in concrete terms. Then, they moved onto happier times-the birth of Israel-and a quick Hebrew lesson, complete with writing Loyola Academy students' names on the board in Hebrew.
The questions from the audience were respectful and on point, and the Jewish teens answered them one by one with clarity and humor.
"Do most Jewish people keep kosher?" questioned one student. "Do you wear a yarmulke even when you're running?" asked another. "Has there been more security at your school since Pittsburgh?" wondered a third.
It was, in fact, the Pittsburgh mass shooting that compelled Ida Crown senior Shoshi Bar-Meir to participate in this program. "The reasoning behind Pittsburgh was so stupid," she said, "and that kind of [hateful] belief stemmed into action, and that action caused so much death and hurt so many people. You may not be able to stop someone from acting, but I want to do what I can to stop that mindset of 'us vs. them.'"
Bar-Meir added that she plans to join Hillel and advocate for Israel on campus when she is a freshman at Northwestern University in the fall. She said that wherever life takes her, she hopes to "bring light" to others.
That pretty much sums up the Student to Student initiative--out of the darkness, these students are shedding light.