Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Would you date someone who’s not Jewish? Do you think you’re going to heaven or hell?
Imagine being asked these questions by a non-Jew—maybe someone who’s never even met a Jewish person before. Would you be able to answer them? Would you be able to represent the entirety of Judaism?
I’m up for the challenge. As an alumna of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) Student to Student program, I was trained in explaining Judaism to non-Jews. In high school, I’d go to schools with little to no Jewish presence, and with three other students, talk about what it was like to be regular Jewish teenagers. We were trained on answering questions like the above (those being the most common ones we were asked). The mission of the program was to combat anti-Semitism in St. Louis high schools.
Now, thanks to a $15,000 grant received from the Natan Fund, a Jewish philanthropy based in New York City, Student to Student is looking to do even more. They’re bringing the program to new cities: Des Moines, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C. They’re growing in other ways, too. The program is expanding its scope, traveling farther in Missouri. And they’re helping other communities create anti-bias education. Jews, African-Americans, and Muslims are breaking down stereotypes and building relationships across St. Louis—along with anyone else who will sit down for an about hour-long presentation.
The students would watch us curiously as we laid props on a table: Books with weird symbols; small, circular hats; animal horns; goblets, and other Judaica. Then, we’d line up to face the class and introduce ourselves.
“Hi, I’m Sophie. I’m a senior at Ladue High School. I like to dance—I’ve been dancing ballet since I was six—and I like to watch movies and hang out with friends. I was raised in the Conservative branch of Judaism. The Conservative branch believes in conserving the laws and practices of the Torah (our bible). It’s different than the Orthodox branch, though, because they have a board of rabbis—teachers, or religious leaders—who make decisions about contemporary issues, like women’s involvement in services, or gay marriage.”
Being the representative for Conservative Judaism, I always seemed to have a harder time defining it than my Reform and Orthodox cohorts. Each group of four high school juniors and seniors covers the main three branches of Judaism. But Fawn Chapel, the coordinator of youth programming for JCRC, attends every presentation and helps the presenters when they get stuck. She helped me narrow down my definition of the Conservative branch to the one I gave above. And she asks presenters to say “branch of Judaism” rather than “sect of Judaism”—the students might mishear and get confused, thinking we had said “sex of Judaism.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council oversees 32 member organizations, but prizes Student to Student as its “shining star,” said executive director Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss. The program started 25 years ago when her predecessor Batya Abramson-Goldstein brought Israeli high schoolers to St. Louis to talk to other high schoolers. Abramson-Goldstein noticed that the teens seemed much more engaged when they were hearing from their peers, rather than, well, her. Over two decades later, the program has had a huge effect on the St. Louis community, and Chapel has experienced that firsthand. “We’ve reached tens of thousands of kids through the years who may have never met a Jewish person, and they may never meet a Jewish person again—but they’ve met our Student to Student participants,” she said.
Though the point of the presentations is to teach others, I arguably gained much more from the experience on the presenting side. I learned practices and meanings of Jewish traditions I had never thought to question, like why we break the glass at a wedding. I learned how to speak publicly, gaining a language for explaining concepts to people who had never encountered them before. And because I needed to explain why I lived the way I lived, I had to ask myself why I lived the way I lived. Why did I keep kosher? Why didn’t I keep Shabbat? Why did I want to marry a Jewish person? What did it mean to me to be a Conservative Jew?
“These are hard topics that many adults in the Jewish community don’t ever have to engage in,” Picker-Neiss said. “But I think it also really is a strong part of strengthening Jewish identity.” She noted what it means for a young adult to ask herself these questions before heading off to college, when she has the power to decide how she’s going to spend the high holidays, or what she’s going to eat at the dining hall. “To have had that opportunity as juniors and seniors to think about what that means for you, and to think about what is the significance of doing these rituals—I think it gives you a different starting point for how you make those decisions for yourself,” she said.
In its first year, the program had ten participants. Now, Student-to-Student draws about 120 Jewish teens annually to the program, and JCRC predicts that their presentations reach about 4,000 non-Jewish students every year. The presentations follow an outline of topics to discuss and points to touch on, with each group member responsible for a couple of sections each. Some of the main ones are the Jewish life cycle, the Jewish calendar, Shabbat, Israel, and the Holocaust. One of mine was keeping kosher. I discussed how I would eat vegetarian out at a restaurant, but I had separate dishes at home, and I’d never eaten pig or shellfish in my life. Then, my group members shared how the practice varied among members of the different branches. Picker-Neiss sees this diversity as a crucial part of the program. When students meet people who all call themselves Jews but range from keeping strict kosher, to keeping a version of kosher, to not keeping kosher at all, Picker-Neiss said that they understand the religion “isn’t any one thing.”
For my part of the presentation, Chapel taught me the importance of communicating that the original law in the Torah says not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk, rather than saying the law says not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. “Kid” is what we often say, understanding it as the literal translation of the Hebrew, but actually meaning goat. Chapel recognizes what that might sound like to someone who’s never heard it before.
My favorite part of my section was the end. “Have you guys ever eaten kosher food?” I’d asked. It usually elicited heads shaking and choruses of “nope!” Then I’d say, “Well, have you guys ever eaten these?” I’d pull out a box of Oreos, and all the students would sit up straighter in their chairs. “Oreos are kosher! Pass these around, but before you eat any, try to find one of these symbols on the box,” I’d say, pointing to the Os and Us I had drawn on the board behind me.
The presentation had many other interactive moments. We’d demonstrate a Friday night dinner, lighting candles and passing around challah to eat. We’d do a pretend marriage under the chuppah for two lucky students in the class. And we’d ask them how big they thought Israel was—“what country or US state do you think it’s comparable to?” I’d get a kick out of telling the students who guessed Egypt or Texas that it was actually about the size of New Jersey, and a fifth the size of their home state, Missouri.
While the students appreciate seeing the Judaica, Picker-Neiss said, they seem to have even more interest in the cultural and social aspects of the lives of Jewish teens. They like to look through Chapel’s Hebrew edition of Harry Potter, and they ask the students what they do in their free time, or what music they listen to. “[They see] that teens are teens, and maybe they practice their faith differently, but at the core they share a passion for the same movies and the same music, and really are similar in their lives,” she said. “But [they see that the Jewish students] manifest their faith in a different way, and in a way that they really admire for the beauty and the depth of the commitment.”
The teachers who invite Student-to-Student back to their classrooms, year after year, are also impressed with the presentations. Picker-Neiss described how they notice a difference in perception and misconceptions of Judaism. The teachers have related that they hear students talking about the presentation outside of the classroom long after, sometimes sharing with students who weren’t there to see it firsthand.
Seeing how Student-to-Student is able to build relationships between communities, JCRC is looking to adapt the program to reach wider audiences. One way they’ve done so is through a new program called Conversation Starter. Student to Student alumni and volunteers travel to rural Missouri towns and give presentations. Though similar to its original design, this program also allows the presenters to learn from the people they’re presenting to. They’ve toured the towns and spoken with community members over kosher lunches. Picker-Neiss said that the inspiration for the program came after the 2016 presidential election, when an urban-rural divide in America became especially evident. “Our participants who live in St. Louis or who are primarily remaining in cities don’t know what’s going on in these parts of Missouri that are just a few hours away. So we see [Conversation Starters] as just as much for our alumni as well as for the people living in these areas,” she said. Since its start in August, the program has traveled to Mexico, Springfield, Joplin, and Cape Girardeau, all places with populations as small as 12,000 people and as big as only 200,000. In Mexico, the church group had some familiarity with Judaism—they knew the one Jew in the whole town.
Another program that has sprung from Student to Student is Normandy Crosscurrents, a similar model adapted for African-American teens. After Student to Student visited Normandy high school—where many of the students hail from Ferguson—those teachers wondered what a similar program initiated by their students might look like. “Everybody’s heard of Ferguson,” Chapel said. “There’s all sorts of misconceptions about these kids—that they go to bad schools, that they don’t care, that their parents don’t care, but it’s not true. They’re very engaged and really excited about breaking down these stereotypes.” Chapel and Picker-Neiss shared their resources with Inda Schaenen, a Normandy teacher whose son is an alumni of Student to Student. Now in its third year, Normandy Crosscurrent has had over 100 students engage in dialogue with schools with predominately white students, Muslim schools, and even with police. “The idea is that dismantling stereotypes works in multiple directions, and that bringing people together to talk and play games in small and large groups helps peel away some of these preconceived ideas about ‘the other,’ ” said Schaenen.
Inspired by this work, JCRC has been helping the Muslim community create their own model. Picker-Neiss noted how in this time of Islamophobia, teachers are looking to introduce Muslim teens to their students. They’ve shared their handbook and are meeting with community leaders, who have started recruiting teens to participate.
In addition to all of these new endeavors, JCRC is expanding their flagship program and bringing it to new cities. “What does it mean if every teen in the country at some point has seen this presentation, or has met a Jewish person—has seen this passion for their religious community, but again, that diversity in their religious community?” Picker-Neiss asked. “[There would be] a huge shift in terms of attitudes towards Jews.”
But Student-to-Student’s biggest testament isn’t from the students sharing what they learned. It’s not from the fact that the teachers continue to invite Student-to-Student back to their classrooms. And it’s not evidenced by the wider community looking to recreate the same program for other groups. Student-to-Student’s biggest testament, Picker-Neiss said, is the alumni who cherish their time in the program long after graduating. She shared that several alumni have gone off to college and taken the initiative to start Student-to-Student in these new places, like the alum heading the new Student to Student affiliate in Des Moines. “If people are going off into their regions and doing work in those regions,” she said, “then this is good for the Jews everywhere, and it’s good for our country, and it’s good for all of us.”