American and Israeli flags during routine joint military exercises in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Israel Defense Forces CC BY-NC 2.0)
American and Israeli flags during routine joint military exercises in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Israel Defense Forces CC BY-NC 2.0)

Helping to turn teens into advocates for Israel

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It isn’t every day that 11 Bay Area teens visit the most significant building in Israeli politics, let alone sit down with a member of Knesset for a roundtable discussion. Moments like that are what make BBYO’s Israel Impact Year program a pioneer for what holistic and effective Israel education can look like for years to come.

Why? Because educated ambassadors for Israel on college campuses are our best shot at combating the alarming levels of anti-Zionism and antisemitism we see today.

It was in early 2019, about halfway through my junior year of high school, when that realization really set in. After years of working with Jewish youth, I realized that no lecture or video could truly break through to a large teen constituency. And so, in the summer of 2019, I founded Israel Impact Year, a program that directly educated influential Jewish teens so they could become ambassadors on high school and college campuses across the United States.

These campuses have seen an enormous rise in anti-Israel movements, such as BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), over the last decade. At some schools, activists have taken aim at defunding Hillel. At others, you can’t even walk around with a Star of David around your neck without being exiled from social circles.

Unfortunately, many young Jewish adults aren’t given the proper resources and tools to fight for themselves.

And so, the necessity for young Israel advocates is abundantly clear. It’s that understanding that led me to create Israel Impact Year. And when I did, I did it with the following points in mind.

The opportunity. To educate Jewish youth and give them the tools to combat anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

The platform. Being a member of the largest Jewish youth group in the world, BBYO, gave me an easy access point from which to reach smart, influential and curious teens who would be willing to spend their time learning and educating others about Israel.

The idea. Eight to 10 teens would be selected for a cohort that would meet with various educators every month to cover a variety of topics, including the history of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After their year of learning at home, they’d go on a heavily subsidized, weeklong trip to Israel where they would round out their learning by meeting with influential leaders and organizers. At program’s end, they would have the proper tools to advocate for Israel.

So it started. We secured $35,000 to fund the program, we put out an application and we had more than 15 applicants within a week. Two years later, I’m proud to say that we’ve had two cohorts of the Israel Impact Year program, creating 20 meaningful experiences filled with lectures from professors, roundtable discussions and various projects.

This summer, I went with 11 of those teens to Israel for eight days as they took their education a step further, meeting with MKs, diplomats, the spokesperson unit for the Israel Defense Forces, venture capitalists, journalists and Palestinians living in Area A.

Now, I’m confident in saying that each of these young leaders will head to the next step of their life well equipped for the challenges that they may face.

First, every participant has a thorough overview of Israel. Thanks to a meaningful lecture with a UC Berkeley professor and a sit-down conversation with a Haaretz reporter, they’re able to articulate how the Knesset works. Whether it was sitting down with new Israeli President Isaac Herzog (when he was the head of the Jewish Agency) or with diplomats at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the teens learned how Israel represents itself in the public eye.

The list goes on and on. Ask any of these well-educated teens a question about Israel, and odds are they’ll have a solid answer for you.

And yet their general education only skims the surface of what they’ve learned.

To some, the most impactful lesson was the depth of Israeli politics, as they developed an understanding that it’s much more than just being on the right or the left, that the complexities we tackle every day when it comes to Israel become all that more difficult to process when you start to further educate yourself. And yet, it’s that ability to view every issue from a variety of angles that enables us to have mature and advanced conversation.

At this point, it’s very clear: Members of the Israel Impact Year program have returned home as staunch and informed Israel advocates, able to articulate strong messaging to their peers and prepared to defend the Jewish future in Israel.

So what’s next?

Israel Impact Year will soon be expanded beyond the Bay Area into many communities across the United States. I am currently working with BBYO to make that happen. And program alumni will soon be combating BDS and other harmful organizations on college campuses.

Personally, I’ll be enlisting in the IDF in a few months, taking with me the important lessons I’ve learned throughout this process.
I know that Israel’s future will remain strong if we continue to build a large base for Israel advocacy in the U.S. And hopefully, by reading this article, you’ll be inspired to expand that base and educate the young adults in your life about the depths of Israel and its history.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen, 18, graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2020. An intern at the S.F.-based Israeli consulate, he served as BBYO's Grand Aleph Godol (international president) during his gap year and plans to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces this fall.