By Miyah Falk
Special to WJW
When my rabbi nominated me to be part of a peer-education program that connects Jewish and non-Jewish students across Greater Washington, combats anti-Semitism and educates teens about Judaism, I jumped at the chance. I couldn’t wait to meet new people and dialogue with my peers about my Jewish life, so I applied to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington’s Student to Student program.
At orientation, I met the group of teens that I would be presenting with and learned that we would be visiting classrooms in public and private schools across Greater Washington to share glimpses into our lives as Jewish teenagers. Each of us identify with different branches of Judaism — one friend is Orthodox, another is Reform and I am Conservative. We are all from different hometowns, representing most areas in and around Greater Washington. We soon discovered that we are each able to offer a unique perspective on what it means to live as a Jewish teenager in 2021, and that together we present a diverse representation of Jewish life in the Washington region.
Our first presentation was to a 12th-grade class at the German International School Washington D.C., in Potomac. According to the school website, the student body is “united by a shared interest in German language and culture.”
As I prepared for our visit, past German and Jewish relationships weighed heavily upon me, and I felt uneasy. I hoped our visit would open channels for positive dialogue with these teens, but feared our inherently different views on topics like the Holocaust might make for an awkward conversation.
Would I feel angry if these students showed little or no remorse for the actions of their grandparents and great-grandparents? Was it fair for me to expect them to relate to evils that took place long before they or their parents were born? If they did demonstrate feelings of responsibility and repentance, would that change my existing feelings of blame and grief surrounding this topic?
I understood the JCRC’s purpose in arranging this visit: to encourage and develop positive lines of communication between international and Jewish teens in America as part of their broader educational goals in the Washington region. Having this meeting was going to be a learning experience for the German School teens, and also for me. I entered the presentation with an open mind and a positive spirit.
The conversation we had at the German School was honest and reciprocal. I felt proud to be representing my community and sharing my perspective as a young, Conservative Jew whose understanding of the Holocaust was developed in Hebrew School, Jewish sleep-away camp and family trips to Israel.
And as it turned out, I was humbled by the compassion and interest of the students from the German School.
We talked about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, holidays and customs. A student named Victoria asked how I feel when people claim that the Holocaust was not real. She wanted to know how the Holocaust makes me feel in general. This question was particularly difficult for me because I worried I might say the wrong thing and did not want to offend any of the German School students.
I told Victoria that when I hear people say that the Holocaust was not real, I feel hurt at the blatant disregard for the suffering my ancestors went through just because they were Jewish. The Holocaust will always be a painful topic for all Jews — hard to unravel and reflect upon. Doing my part to educate others on this tragic event and speak for the 6 million Jews who died makes me feel better. I honor their experience by sharing their stories and keeping them memorialized. Having an honest, curious and respectful audience of German peers listen as I explained these complexities was a powerful experience.
Reflecting on that first presentation as we prepare to observe Yom HaShoah on April 8, I feel hopeful about the relationships my generation of German and Jewish youth can have. As teenagers in 2021, it is our job to not let our differences define us. Sometimes, the world can feel full of hate and discrimination, but we must keep making positive strides through education and communication.
I am excited for my future with the Student to Student program and look forward to continuing to meet new people, have difficult but illuminating conversations and create friendships that unite communities and break down barriers among us.
Miyah Falk is a junior at Winston Churchill High School. She is a peer educator with the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Student to Student program. The JCRC’s community-wide virtual Yom Ha’Shoah commemoration will take place on Sunday, April 11 at 1 p.m. Go to: jcouncil.org.