The Power in Jewish Youth

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The Power in Jewish Youth By Ofek Preis - Photo by Sonja Lippmann

On February 14th, 2018, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre became the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. The gunman, who had made disturbing anti-Semitic and racist posts on social media, opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle for six minutes, killing seventeen and injuring seventeen others. This tragedy had a widespread impact and sparked discussion about school safety across the nation. Many Jewish Americans began to express their concerns for their safety, for the student body at Marjory Stoneman Douglas is over 40% Jewish.

My high school on Long Island, NY, is closely tied to the Jewish community in Parkland, Florida, where the shooting took place. Many of my peers became friends with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students through Jewish summer camps and youth social organizations, and many Parkland parents are alumni of our high school. Although personally I did not know members of the Parkland community, I commiserated with them as they expressed they feel helpless and ignored. I deeply sympathized with the frustrated survivors in feeling that their call for action was not heard. Why isn’t anyone listening? Why are adults so comfortable belittling children who are crying for help? I thought to myself. The tenacious students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas subsequently established Never Again MSD, a political action committee advocating for tighter gun regulations. To me, this epitomized self-determination and personal agency.

This initiated a period of self-reflection of my own shortcomings when it comes to advocacy. While I was often a very passionate participant in discourse about activism, my actions rarely followed suit. I realized it was time to focus my efforts into the causes that I support beyond simple conversations.

Inspired by the Parkland students who were protesting for safety and justice, I joined some of my peers in planning a school-wide walk-out on the one-month anniversary of the shooting. After weeks of drafting speeches, scheduling meetings with the principal, painting banners, and garnering attention through social media, approximately 85% of our student body came together to memorialize the victims and advocate for school safety reform. We received extensive support from our whole community; from families of students, teachers, and staff; and even residents of Parkland.

Ten days after participating in the walkout, I traveled to Washington, DC to attend the March for Our Lives with United Synagogue Youth, a Jewish teen movement which I had been a member of a few years prior. We met at a synagogue in Washington DC, which hosted me and nearly 1,000 other Jewish teenagers from across the US.

After we welcomed Shabbat with candle lighting and a Kiddush, we talked about tikkun olam—how we wanted to help repair our broken world. I was inspired to hear so many of my peers share their experiences with using religion to motivate advocacy. I mentioned that growing up in Israel, I often heard the ancient proverb in Judaism: “?אם אין אני לי, מי לי” which roughly translates to, “If I don’t fight for myself, who will fight for me?” I explained that Judaism often encourages personal autonomy and self advocacy, but it is hard to stay motivated when adults often dismiss the voices of the young. Many of the other USY teenagers in the room agreed that it was inspiring to witness students our age take matters into their own hands and create a national movement.

The next morning, we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue holding signs and chanting traditional USY songs. I felt at home, surrounded by similarly minded, motivated people inspired by our shared culture. This was the first time I had ever personally witnessed how Judaism inspires solidarity in times of hardship. It illuminated the power in Jewish youth, and how Jewish identity can collectively remind us of our ethical responsibilities.

Compelled to sustain this momentum of activism, I have continued to do my part. When I attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Cedarhurst, NY in June 2020, I reminisced about my empowering experience in Washington. There were many Jews and Israelis in attendance, and I saw many signs in Hebrew, many with motivational Torah verses. It surprised me to see so many onlookers recognize the language and decide to suddenly join and show their support for the cause. Being surrounded by supporters who share my Jewish values and are encouraged to continue their fight for social justice reminded me of the unity I felt during the March.

Since the start of the pandemic, participating in advocacy has become more difficult, which caused me to question how I will continue building on my momentum. Thanks to the internet, however, activism was not limited to the confines of our homes while we were in quarantine. In this day and age, social media is a crucial platform for engaging in conversations about activism and advocacy. The popular app, Tik Tok, has recently created a platform known as “JewTok” for Jewish Millennials and Gen-Zs to make connections with fellow Jews and discuss their experiences with anti-Semitism. During the start of quarantine, I began to use my Tik Tok account more frequently to discuss many things I was passionate about, including advocacy. I was instantly welcomed by fellow Jews from around the globe who wanted to engage in conversation about social justice and human rights. I began to participate in discussions about anti-Semitism and racism, sharing my experiences as an Israeli immigrant in America and describing the protests I’ve attended. While my original goal was to refrain from only participating in activism with only my words, quarantine reminded me that conversations about advocacy are an equal contributor in the fight for justice. I am so very grateful for this platform and hope to continue to use it to shed light on topics such as racial justice, intersectional feminism, anti-Semitism, and other human rights issues with my newfound community of fellow young Jews.

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