Students empowering students


How do we as Jews encourage mutual understanding within our community and between ourselves and others, especially during the formative adolescent years? At the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, we believe one answer is to empower Jewish students to forge these important connections themselves.

Student to Student, JCRC’s new peer education initiative, is based on a model program of the same name in St. Louis that has been in operation for more than two decades. There, it has touched the lives of thousands of area students and put a face to Jewish people in settings where there aren’t many of us.

Jewish students go into high schools throughout the metro area to discuss their experiences as Jewish teens and dispel the stereotypes that keep communities separated. The program thrives because the peer-to-peer approach, which prizes informal discussion over lecture, is more relatable and engaging for students.

Thanks to a grant provided by the United Jewish Endowment Fund of Greater Washington, JCRC is thrilled to be bringing this innovative program to the Greater Washington community.

Now, more than ever, Student to Student is sorely needed in our region, which has recently experienced a disconcerting escalation in school-based incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism and harassment. These incidents have occurred even at schools with meaningful Jewish populations, where theoretically non-Jewish students have had more exposure to Jewish peers. Even a student who has attended fifteen bar and bat mitzvahs in the space of two years may underestimate the pain and harm caused by drawing a swastika on a bathroom stall door or dropping pennies near Jewish peers, “just as a joke.” Student to Student allows Jewish teens to speak for themselves and to contextualize the Jewish experience for their schoolmates, thereby undermining the cruel stereotypes and ignorance that lie at the root of so many manifestations of school-based anti-Semitism.

The benefits of the program are threefold: 1) combating bias and anti-Semitism in our schools; 2) preparing Jewish students to discuss their Jewish identities with confidence and to be forces for tolerance and positive change; and 3) nurturing connections and friendships among students from different backgrounds, Jewish and otherwise. We know that Student to Student will be an excellent addition to the full complement of youth programming that JCRC already runs, including our long-running Israel Engagement Fellowship.

In the coming weeks, we will be identifying high-school juniors and seniors (please send your teen our way through to participate in this innovative program. Those selected will be trained to publicly discuss Jewish identity, the different holidays and rituals Jews participate in, a day in the life of a Jewish teen, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and bigotry, and other facets of the Jewish experience.

Then, they will be grouped in teams of four students — each of which will include individuals from Judaism’s various movements to underscore our community’s diversity. Each team will lead two to three training sessions in specially selected schools.

On a personal level, I am excited to come on board to spearhead this effort as program director of the Student to Student initiative. I am not only a Student to Student staffer, I am also a parent of two program alumni — my family relocated to the Washington area from St. Louis — and that underlies my confidence in the value of this initiative. I have seen the impact this program has had both on the Jewish students who participate, as well as the teens who are exposed to Judaism through this endeavor.

JCRC is committed to doing the educational and outreach work that brings communities together, fosters mutual understanding, and ensures that our children are part of this endeavor. We are pleased to bring our young people an additional opportunity to take part in this critical mission.

Sara Winkelman, MSW, is the program director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Student to Student Initiative.

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