"People need to understand that antisemitism is a real, physical threat to all Jews. We shouldn't have to wait for another synagogue shooting to make people in power understand the impact of this threat."
This powerful statement from Sabrina Goldsmith, one of 14 teens in this year's Jewish Federation of Chicago's Research Training Internship (RTI) program, is one of many that opens a new report on antisemitism compiled by high school students determined to change the world.
Open to female and nonbinary high school students, RTI focuses on teaching teens how to explore social justice issues they see in the world and educate those around them while learning feminist research methods from instructors from DePaul University.
"As the broader Jewish community, we often ask what Gen Z cares about," said Beckee Birger, the group's director. "This is a chance to listen to and learn from them, giving the next generation of Jewish leaders space and time to see what they think is important and we as a community should care about."
With past topics including what makes a "perfect" Jewish girl, rape culture, and eating disorders, this year's RTI cohort decided to research antisemitism, in the wake of the shootings at the Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha Synagogue and Chabad of Poway.
The process began with twice-monthly meetings at DePaul University, where the teens discussed different issues and brainstormed their topic. Once the interns chose antisemitism as their topic, it was their choice how to research antisemitism and present their findings. Finally, the process culminated in a 2-hour community presentation where they shared their conclusions.
The group used feminist research methodology and participatory action research to create a report with four different sections--each led by a smaller subgroup--tackling different aspects of antisemitism, each one concluding with a way to heighten awareness of antisemitism in Jewish holidays and rituals.
First, the teens delved into the history of antisemitism in America. "Antisemitism is not just the Holocaust, it is a cycle of sustained oppression and discrimination," the report reads before diving into a timeline beginning with the arrival of Sephardic refugees in North America in 1654 and going through the shooting at the Chabad of Poway. At the end of the timeline, Jewish heroes Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandy Koufax, and Emma Lazarus are presented as options for a meaningful Purim costume to celebrate Jewish history.
Next, the cohort surveyed and interviewed high school students, millennials, adults age 40-70, and Holocaust survivors to gauge the impact of antisemitism on everyday life. While many of the respondents saw antisemitism in daily life, few saw it manifest in the same way. From anti-Israel rhetoric to microaggressions and hate crimes, the teens' summaries of the interviews explore these incidents and more, including questions about politics and Jewish representation in the media. With these educational remarks in mind, the associated ritual is an eight-day observation of Chanukah with opportunities to educate and act every day.
A third subgroup within the cohort researched connections between antisemitism and mental health. In addition to the everyday anxiety induced by antisemitism, some research suggests a correlation between the Holocaust and mental health problems both for survivors and their children and grandchildren. Following this, the teens "reimagined the role and practice of the
(ritual bath) to heal from current and ongoing effects of antisemitism" in a group context, rather than individual practice--complete with affirmations, prayers, journaling, and more.
Finally, the fourth subgroup interviewed Jewish organizations with experience fighting back against antisemitism. The teens shared these stories of victory and the lessons they convey, as well as suggestions of what works to fight back, including sharing stories, advocacy, "people power," legislation, and voting. Following this section, the teens provide a Passover thought exercise to think of ways to stand up and combat oppression and hatred.
Overall, the teens presented six takeaways: Live Jewishly; Organize in your community; Connect with people who are already as engaged as you are; Involve people in power; Educate people who are open to learning; and We need allies to win. These cutout cards can be kept in one's wallet to remind the report's readers how to carry on this important mission.
For the cohort, the experience was lifechanging. "RTI has truly been one of the most incredible experiences of my life," said participant Gwen Tucker. "I have learned so much about oppression and privilege and huge world issues, while also exploring my own identities. I love RTI!"