In February, I had the privilege of attending the first-ever Jewish Youth Assembly, an initiative by NextGen from the World Jewish Congress. This conference, which gathered participants from ages 15-to 17 from over 20 countries, was The World Jewish Congress’ attempt at engaging with Jewish youth and training future Jewish leaders.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) has arguably been one of the most influential Jewish organizations in the world. It was established in 1936 by Jewish representatives from 32 countries who came together based on the understanding that Jews needed a democratically organized representative body that could act and advocate on matters of common concern. These parties understood that if Jews united, our voices could be heard better on the world stage, which was especially important during and after WWII. For, it was the World Jewish Congress, that in 1942 alerted the world to the Nazi’s genocidal plan, and lobbied and organized the majority of the aid for Jewish refugees after the war. Today, the WJC contains Jewish community representatives from over 100 countries and continues to spearhead Jewish projects and advocate for Jews on a global platform.
The Jewish Youth Assembly resembled a model UN, in which all participants were assigned a country to represent, and a specific committee assignment. Committee topics included Jewish Unity, Antisemitism, Online Hate, and more. Participants had the opportunities to learn with and from their peers as they worked together to find solutions to major issues. At the end of the conference, committees were expected to create resolutions outlining their response to their given issue.
The conference opened with a message from the Executive VP of the World Jewish Congress, Mr. Maram Stern, who remarked that “we [referring to the youth] are the future.” This simple message of hope and optimism set the tone for the conference, and gave participants, myself included, a feeling that by participating we were indirectly making a statement on the world stage. The all-important message is that Jewish youth, no matter the attacks on our communities, are still strong and fighting for a future.
The first session I went to at the conference was a delegation meeting. There, I learned about the history and culture of the Jewish community of my delegation country, Bulgaria. While the Bulgarian community only numbers 6,000 Jews, I learned about their resilience as a people, and refusal to let their community die out. It was truly an inspiring story.
In my next meeting, I met for the first time with my committee, whose topic was Jewish Unity. Here, we were taught by Menachem Rosensaft, a Columbia Law lecturer who is on the general counsel of WJC. He taught us about the history and concept of Jewish Unity and shared his thoughts on what has caused such a lack of unity amongst our people in the modern era.
One thing that stuck out, in particular, was when Mr. Rosensafte discussed how our disunion as a people is self-inflicted. White supremacists do not care what type of Jew you are when they attack, they simply see us all as Jews. One group. One nation. Thus, it is evident that these rifts we see between denominations and communities are created by us, as our differences do not exist in the same way to others. We have created these prejudices ourselves, and it is up to us to fix them. Overall, the lecture was extremely insightful and made me think in-depth about how and why Jews have become so polarized.
After this meeting, we were assigned groups to work with over the next two weeks to create draft resolutions. Working virtually with my peers was the highlight of the whole experience for me. We were able to work in a relaxed environment together, and had the opportunity to really get to know each other. If not for this conference, I probably never would have met this group of other Jewish teens who came from England, Colombia, Israel, Croatia, Istanbul, Turkey, and all across the U.S. This conference definitely succeeded in bringing together Jewish teens from across the world, which was amazing to experience firsthand.
In our final meeting, our committee finalized a resolution and voted on it. In our resolution, we discussed possible solutions to unite Jews, such as attending global conferences like the Jewish Youth Assembly. We also acknowledged the ways in which Jews are becoming more polarized, because only through acknowledgment can we begin to resolve our differences. By the end of our final meeting, it felt great to see all of our learning and hard work come together into something concrete.
As the conference came to a close, we were again reminded of our potential as Jewish leaders. The closing ceremony was simple and short, but the significance of a conference like this wasn’t lost on me. It was truly the first international attempt at gathering promising Jewish teens to educate them about global Jewry, and it filled me with hope.
These days, I constantly feel bombarded by anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist messages, and having these frequent reminders makes you forget that there are initiatives out there trying to fight for a future for us. As teens, we must look for and participate in them. The Jewish Youth Assembly is a prime example of an initiative that is inspiring future Jewish leaders, and I feel so proud that I was able to participate in this historic moment.
Elizabeth Ciment is a sophomore at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC. She is a staff writer for Fresh Ink for Teens. She enjoys rock climbing, doing flying trapeze, and baking desserts in her spare time.