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Cultivating pro-Israel teens – Connecticut students selected for national fellowship

By Cindy Mindell

With reports from France of Jewish teens joining ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, the need to strengthen Israel advocacy among young Jews seems more urgent in a country with ample resources to do so.

(l to r) Kasim Hafeez, Talia Weseley, and Stamford JCC Community Shaliach Or Berger.

(l to r) Kasim Hafeez, Talia Weseley, and Stamford JCC Community Shaliach Or Berger.

Among those pro-Israel organizations working to engage teens is StandWithUs (SWU), an international non-profit that combats extremism and anti-Semitism through educational programming. Through print materials, speakers, programs, conferences, missions to Israel, campaigns, and social media and Internet resources, SWU gets the story of Israel’s achievements and ongoing challenges into public discourse on college campuses and in communities around the world. Based in Los Angeles, SWU maintains 16 offices across North America and in Israel and the UK.

In 2012, StandWithUs partnered with the MZ Foundation, an Oakland, Calif.-based private grant-making foundation that works with organizations throughout the world to address anti-Semitism.

The resulting StandWithUs-MZ Teens Internship high school leadership program prepares students for the Israel-related challenges they may face in college and in their communities.

In the year-long internship, MZ Teens take part in two national conferences and ongoing online educational workshops, and receive guidance and funding to run educational programming in their high schools and youth groups. Upon completion of the internship, as members of the StandWithUs MZ Alumni Program, participants continue to receive support and Israel-advocacy training opportunities during college and beyond.

This year, two Connecticut high school seniors were among students from across the country selected to participate in the MZ Teens Internship. They launched into their new role at a national conference in August, where interns from across the country received training in Israel programming and advocacy.

Jacob Offir

Jacob Offir

Jacob Offir is a junior at Staples High School in Westport. A graduate of Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, Offir is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel.

“Living and studying in the U.S., I find that I am well versed in U.S. history as well as the most pertinent domestic events of the day; conversely,

I find that I am not as savvy about Israeli history, politics, and current events,” he says. “I applied to become an MZ Teen Intern to learn much more about Israel with the goal of being able to effectively communicate and debate the existential issue that she faces today.”

Offir has been involved in the Jewish community from an early age, visiting Israel with his family on a regular basis, helping out at Israel-related programs like Hadassah fundraisers, rallies, and social activities. He is an active member of the Staples High School Israeli Culture Club.

While relatively new to the internship, Offir says, “I have already obtained a deeper understanding of Israel’s current events and realize that I am more articulate in discussing some of the more pressing issues. This has been especially helpful given this summer’s war and rising threat from ISIS. The internship has provided me the tools to fully comprehend the situation and to understand its complexities from multiple sides.”

Offir is planning several Israel-related educational events for Staples and his synagogue.

Talia Weseley of Weston is a student at the Jewish High School of Connecticut in Stamford. She learned about the MZ Teen Internship through her youth group, BBYO, after attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in March.

“I’ve always been extremely invested in all things Israel for as long as I can remember, whether through visits or learning about it in school,” says the senior. “When I found an opportunity to work to actively promote Israel advocacy and education, I knew I absolutely had to apply.”

A graduate of Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, Weseley says that she has always been surrounded by an engaged pro-Israel community. She is also highly active in BBYO, where she served as vice president of Judaic, community service, and Israel-advocacy programming for Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. She also attended several AIPAC events, including two policy conferences and the High School Summit.

Weseley says that the MZ experience has been “absolutely amazing” so far, starting with the August conference, where participants shared their personal Israel stories.

“We talked about Israel’s history and Israel’s contributions to the world community, but ultimately, the reason each of us so passionately advocates for Israel stems from a personal connection,” she says. “Through finding our own stories, each of the interns found a deeper reason to stay motivated and passionate about not only the internship, but our future Israel advocacy efforts.”

Weseley organized a program at the Jewish High School of CT featuring Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim whose anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views were radically changed after he read The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz and StandWithUs’s primer, Israel 101. The self-proclaimed “Muslim Zionist” is a member of the StandWithUs UK advisory board and has presented his talk, “The Day I Stopped Hating Israel: Confessions of an Ex-Radical,” to several teen and adult audiences in Connecticut.

Weseley will continue to work at her school and with BBYO in Stamford and throughout the Connecticut Valley region. Her goal, as an MZ Teen Intern, is to help fellow Jewish teens find a more personal connection with Israel in order to become stronger Israel advocates.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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