A Midwest leader of StandWithUs, a nonprofit, educational Israel advocacy group, told local teenagers about her experiences advocating for Israel and fighting against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at an event titled “Israel’s Bat Mitzvah” Dec. 4 at the Mandel JCC, put on by two local high school students.

About 70 teens and parents attended the event to become better educated on BDS prior to college. StandWithUs interns Emily Einhorn, a Beachwood High School senior, and Rachel Braun, a Solon High School senior, organized the event and welcomed Vida Velasco, the Midwest high school coordinator of the group.

Velasco, who is based in the Greater Chicago area, told the group she became passionate about defending Israel when she saw Jewish friends verbally attacked by anti-Zionists.

“I started seeing my friends having their very Jewish identity attacked for what people think Israel is doing. That’s when it became personal to me,” Velasco said.

She asked the students to describe their experiences with Israel, highlighting its beauty, spirituality and beaches, and said she saw it as “this incredible place of so many contradictions.” However, she went on to describe the generational divide on Israel and why it’s important for teens to take it on as their own cause.

“When you look at the studies that show our parents’ generation and our grandparents’ generation, they are solid on Israel. They know that our alliance is an important thing. Then you get to my age group and younger, and like my students who I work with, and the numbers are scarier and the perceptions are very different,” Velasco said. “When you have people believing that Israel is enacting apartheid, they are trying to justify this bigoted movement of economic pressure on Israel now, and that’s why we need to speak out against it.”

Velasco said that respectfully engaging with people who have a variety of viewpoints also could be useful.

“I speak on campuses and I’d be happy the next time in Cleveland, if there is anyone interested in maybe having a debate, I’m all for that,” Velasco said.

Einhorn and Braun, both 17, told the Cleveland Jewish News about the research they did to learn about BDS and other Israel-related issues, and recommended their peers engage with a variety of sources.

“Once I found out I had the internship I started learning more,” said Braun, a member of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.

“I was like, ‘this is a topic I need to educate my peers about,’” she said, adding that she mostly used the StandWithUs resources to begin learning, but has since branched out.

Einhorn, a member of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood, said she looked at both sides of the issues to develop her beliefs.

“Just seeing both sides, that’s really what I tried to focus on, even though of course that’s a really hard thing to do,” Einhorn said.

“You don’t have to be anti-Palestinian to be pro-Israel,” she added.

Both girls are planning to attend college next year, and Einhorn said interning with StandWithUs has eased some worries about potential BDS organizing on campus.

“Obviously, that’s a concern for me,” Einhorn said. “StandWithUs has really prepared me to know exactly how to fight and where to go, and the fact that I have them behind me makes me feel a lot better about going.”

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