AIPAC Schusterman High School Summit: An Eye-Opening Adventure

ST Cohen

From the moment I entered the spacious, luxurious hotel, I knew it would be an experience I would never forget. Even after a long four-hour drive from Teaneck to Crystal City, Virginia, I was anything but fatigued, buzzing as I was with excitement and anticipation of what was to come. Shortly after we arrived, our close-knit Ma’ayanot group of seven was soon mixed up into the sea of people as everyone was placed at random tables for dinner. At my table, I was introduced to a diverse group of adolescents from all over the country. When I informed someone that I was from Teaneck, I was met with the response of, “Where?” Furthermore, when the peer facilitator, a college student, at my table inquired about my love for Israel, I replied with my usual answer of, “It’s my home.” He thought that I meant that I had family in Israel or was born there. When I politely corrected him, that it was my spiritual, not physical home, he explained that while he also related to Israel as his spiritual home, his family completely did not understand his connection to the land and was not supportive at all. For someone who was raised in a Zionist environment, it was interesting to learn about Jews from different backgrounds who I had never interacted with before.

That night we were placed in sessions to learn about the American government, the steps of lobbying and how we, a group of high-schoolers could enact change. Everyone was again placed in random groups which allowed me the opportunity to meet new people and play the classic game of Jewish geography. However, the peer facilitator was a young woman of color from Vassar College named Gemillia. I was curious why someone whom I assumed was not Jewish would be so invested and passionate about the American-Israel relationship. That is why I later asked her how she became involved in AIPAC. She explained that her parents were born in Jamaica, and growing up she always heard about the positive relationship between the Jewish and Black community during the Civil Rights movement. When she began college she heard of a few anti-Israel sentiments and somehow one of her friends suggested that she become involved in AIPAC. Her first reaction was: “I’m not Jewish, how does this affect me?” However, in the summer of 2014, she visited Israel, during the war with Gaza, which altered her opinion forever. When she experienced rockets and running to a bomb shelter, something that unfortunately Israelis deal with too often, she realized how important Israel’s existence was, especially to America. That is how she began her involvement with AIPAC and her pro-Israel club on campus. I found it fascinating to learn that the Jewish people are not alone in the fight against the growing rise of hostility towards Israel and our nation in general, and that there are others who stand with us.

That night I met one of my roommates, who left a lasting impression on me and the other Ma’ayanot girls. When we asked her where she was from, she answered, “Winston, North Carolina.” She told us that she came with her youth group, with which she was very involved. When we related to her that we were from the Modern Orthodox community, she told us that she was a Reform Jew who identified as an agnostic. The way she explained her ideology was the following: although she believed in a higher power, it was not necessarily HaShem, but she shared a love for Israel, as well as for its people and Jewish culture. As we learned about her life and a different take on Judaism, we also taught her about modern Orthodoxy, what is like attending Ma’ayanot, keeping Shabbos, and other mitzvot to which she had not yet been exposed. Meeting her helped me understand the various reasons people support Israel, and made me realize how important Israel is even to non-observant Jews.

From the information I learned—about the growing danger of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Russia’s position in the conflict, and the threat Iran poses to Israel’s survival—to the many people I met along the way, I gained a lot from this incredibly meaningful experience.