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New program helps WNY Jewish teens fight anti-Semitism locally amid national rise in hate crimes

Courtesy of Buffalo Jewish Federation
Student to Student participants and program coordinator Michael Steklof pose for a group photo during a virtual presentation to an English class at Hamburg High School in November 2020.

A new educational initiative of the Buffalo Jewish Federation is facilitating conversations between Jewish teenagers and their non-Jewish high school peers in an effort to promote understanding and fight anti-Semitism.

The program, called Student to Student, was originally developed by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis more than 10 years ago, but its replication in Western New York couldn’t be more timely: Hate crimes motivated by religion rose about 7% in 2019, according to the latest FBI statistics, and 60% of crimes in that category targeted Jews—far more than any other religious group. There’s also a closely documented link between anti-Semitism and a wide range of extremist groups in the U.S.

Credit Courtesy of Ava Rosenthal/Buffalo Jewish Federation
Ava Rosenthal, a sophomore at Williamsville East High School, takes a selfie with a slide about Jewish diet from a Student to Student presentation.

“I’ve always found that the more people have individual relationships with Jews, the less anti-Semitism there is, because it’s really hard to hate someone when you know them and when you can put a face to them,” said Michael Steklof, one of the coordinators of Student to Student and director of Jewish experience at The Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning, which is part of the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

Steklof added that Student to Student was scheduled to kick off locally back in March but was put on hold for several months because of the coronavirus pandemic. The group switched gears to preparing virtual presentations over the summer and started speaking to area classrooms and student groups in late November.

One of the group’s latest presentations was given to the Hamburg Coalition for Equity and Inclusion (HCEI) Youth Chapter on Dec. 7, during which Steklof asked the Student to Student participants if anyone would be comfortable sharing any of their personal experiences with anti-Semitism. Several students volunteered.

Credit Courtesy of Charlie Herman/Buffalo Jewish Federation
Charlie Herman, a senior at Williamsville North High School, shared a personal story of experiencing anti-Semitism during a recent Student to Student presentation.

“I came from a small Jewish school, so I didn’t really have any foundation going into high school,” said Charlie Herman, a senior at Williamsville North High School. Herman went on to tell the group about how he made a group of friends during his freshman year but that one of them would repeatedly make offensive anti-Semitic comments to him.

“He would say things like, we would be talking about summer camps, and he would ask me, ‘What summer camp do you go to? Do you go to Auschwitz?’”

Auschwitz, of course, was one of the Nazi’s largest concentration camps during World War II, where more than 1.1 million men, women and children—most of them Jews—were killed. It’s also just one example of the many difficult topics that teens like Herman are grappling with during Student to Student presentations. Adam Beiter, a senior at Hamburg High School, took a tough question about the complex political relationship between the U.S. and Israel during the presentation to HCEI, which he is also a member of.

“There is sort of a widespread stereotype, and this is definitely an anti-Semitic stereotype, that Jews have a dual loyalty to Israel or that their loyalty is greater to Israel than the United States, or that Israel somehow controls all the media and all the money of the world,” Beiter said. “It’s basically the basis for many, many false conspiracy theories and you see it really popping up on both sides of the political aisles.”

Credit Courtesy of Buffalo Jewish Federation
The Holocaust is one of the difficult subjects that Jewish teenagers are trained on how to discuss during Student to Student presentations.

Beiter is correct that anti-Semitism is highly intertwined with extremist ideology and conspiracy theories. An Oct. 2020 study by the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University actually found that anti-Semitic views often serve as a key entry point for people to join extremist groups and move closer to violence.

“A wide array of extremist groups in the United States—from violent Islamist extremists to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and skinheads to far-left extremists—have each incorporated antisemitic [sic] ideology as components of their worldviews,” the report reads. “No single extremist group can claim a monopoly on the perpetuation of antisemitic [sic] tropes and narratives or attacking the Jewish community.”

Researchers from the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University in Israel also concluded earlier this year that the coronavirus pandemic is further fueling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that portray Jews as “producer[s] of disease.” Those false claims are mainly promoted by far-right extremists, including ultra conservative Christians and Islamists, the researchers found.

Credit Courtesy of Syvonne Forgette/Buffalo Jewish Federation
Syvonne Forgette, a junior at City Honors School, said she’s grateful for the opportunity to share information about Judaism with non-Jewish high school students from throughout Western New York.

Despite such hateful rhetoric and the ever-growing security risks for Jews in the U.S. following attacks like the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 people, Student to Student presentations don’t just focus on hate. Jewish holidays, culture and the Mediterranean beaches of Tel Aviv that some participants have enjoyed during visits to Israel are also topics of discussion.

“Okay, so my parents had a Jewish wedding and after the wedding, this is the glass that my dad stepped on,” said a presenter named Ava Rosenthal explaining a familiar custom. “They got it put back together in a glass box, so I thought that was cool.”

Student to Student participant Syvonne Forgette, a junior at City Honors School in Buffalo, also said she’s been grateful for the opportunity to meet other Jewish teenagers from throughout Western New York.

“One of my favorite things about being Jewish is the community, and there’s such a strong Jewish community in Buffalo,” Forgette said. “Also, it’s definitely given me a different perspective on the world being part of a religious minority.”

“With the anti-Semitism on the rise, it’s so important to teach people like what Judaism is, [and] some of the different cultures and customs,” she continued, “especially people who have never met a Jewish person.”

Student to Student’s next local presentation is scheduled for Lancaster High School. The program also continues to expand nationally with financial support from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

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