Student-to-student talks aim to increase understanding of Jews

Sammy Strent, left, and Shuli Frenkel, right, demonstrate what a chuppah would look like at a Jewish wedding by holding it over Aviva Bechky. Photo by Jacqueline Hyman.

Three teens — Aviva Bechky, Sammy Strent and Shuli Frenkel — are giving a presentation at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Germantown. They tell the class about their bar and bat mitzvah projects, and how they celebrate Shabbat. They talk about the laws of kashrut.

One student’s jaw drops when Sammy says that if you keep kosher, you can’t eat cheeseburgers.

The three have been trained to give talks like this and field questions about Jewish life, usually in public school classrooms.

They bring props to give their audiences visual (even edible) aids in learning about Judaism. To demonstrate Shabbat, they pass around a loaf of challah for students to tear off and eat. They show the candles Jews light on Friday nights and let the students smell spices used for Havdalah at the end of Shabbat.

From Shabbat the discussion turns to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. “What percentage of people in the U.S. do you think are Jewish?” Aviva asks the class.

Several hands go up. “Seventy percent?” “Twenty-three?” they guess. Aviva keeps telling them to guess lower. “Ten percent?”

She tells them that 2 percent of Americans are Jewish, but that they face the majority of religious-based crimes.

These are difficult topics. But mostly they talk about their own Jewish lives.

Sammy, 17, a Conservative Jew and a student at Walt Whitman High School, talks about his family’s Shabbat dinners. Aviva, 16, who attends Montgomery Blair High School, says she goes with family or friends to her Reform synagogue on Friday nights. Shuli, 16, is
Modern Orthodox and a student at Berman Hebrew Academy. She tells the class that she doesn’t use technology during Shabbat.

The program is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. Sara Winkelman, the agency’s director of education, programs and services, says she tries to have the Jewish spectrum represented — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative teens, as well as boys and girls.

The point of the exercise isn’t just to teach the middle school students.

“It’s fun to watch them learn from each other,” says Winkelman. “For many teens it’s the first time they have to explain why they’re Jewish. They’ve just grown up that way, most kids don’t have to do that until college. So I feel like that’s a good growing tool … They’re
learning their personal narrative.”

Winkelman says about 60 teenagers from 31 schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia volunteer for the program, usually high school juniors and seniors. She said the presenters often say they get as much out of the activity as the audience does.

“The Jewish kids [feel] appreciated, honored as well as educating people on things they don’t know about,” Winkelman says.

A student at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School searches a package of Oreos for the kashrut symbol. Photo by Jacqueline Hyman.

After the Feb. 6 class, the three presenters sit down to talk about their experiences. They’ve each done several presentations, to groups of teachers, middle school students and high schoolers.

Aviva says she wanted to be a presenter because she wanted to educate people in an era of rising anti-Semitism.

“I think a lot of that comes from ignorance, because people don’t know Jews and what Jews are like. Also, part of it was because I come from like a slightly different background than a lot of Jews,” says Aviva, who is multiracial. “I wanted to share that not all Jews are the same.”

The three say that most of the people they speak to know little about Judaism.

“It’s important when we go to places that have smaller Jewish populations because it allows us to connect more with people that really just don’t know much about it,” Sammy says. “And that’s sort of the whole point of the program.”

They see themselves as role models for the middle schoolers.

“I really like the student-to-student interaction aspect of it, where after every segment, we say, ‘Does anyone have any questions? Anything you guys want to know?’” says Shuli.

They’d like to think that by doing this, they’re making a positive impact on the people who listen.

“Maybe you’re not going to change the minds of people who are really committed to hate,” Aviva says, “but I hope that what this program does is get people to pause a second before they say something … to be able to recognize anti-Semitism and to stand up against it, and to, when they see someone who’s Jewish to think, ‘Oh, that person is like us, too.’”
Twitter: @jacqbh58

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