Advice to American Jewish Teens and College Students

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents have risen by more than 400% since October 7.  Here in Greensboro, North Carolina, we have seen a precipitous uptick in such occurrences.

Specifically, our beautiful Holocaust Memorial had a red swastika painted on it. Thank God, we succeeded in getting it off and the person who vandalized the statue has been arrested.

There have been several bomb threats in synagogues as well.

In one public middle school, there was a terrible incident of antisemitic bullying by a teacher who called out a student because he was Jewish and he “liked“ Israel.

Our high school kids have encountered antisemitic comments as well.

An outstanding high school senior in our congregation, Liz Geier, wrote the following advice to young people her age. She gave this as a speech at a recent Shabbat service.   With her permission, I am sharing it with all of you in the hope that you will share it with others, especially teens and college students.

“A Letter to Jewish Teens and College Students – How Young Jews Should Portray Themselves”  by Liz Geier

How should we, young Jewish people, present ourselves in 2024?   No matter how old one is, we all are having difficulties with how Jews are being portrayed and the hate we are receiving.

Having given this quite a bit of thought, I have three concrete suggestions.

First, we should wear our stars of David with pride! As high schoolers, we are asked constantly about our Magen Davids.  “Is that a Jew necklace?” is a common question asked by my peers.

This question might occasionally come from a place of hate, but mostly it is curiosity, worded ignorantly.  Curiosity worded ignorantly is a common theme of being a Jew in high school.  You would not believe the comments I got when I told my classmates I would be doing a semester in Israel.  I have learned that just because someone does not respect your religion or like the Jewish people does not mean they are entitled to make you ashamed of who you are. This goes for all Jewish items like kippahs and recently the dog tags that say “Bring them home.”

Answer questions with the understanding that this may be the first time many of our southern peers are seeing these items. How you respond will leave an impression on that person. So be kind and teach them about our culture.

Second, don’t stray away from conversations about your religion and Israel in a time like this.  These conversations can be healing. Share your experiences with the world about the hate you have seen or experienced in our community. Learn from those around you about things they are seeing and hearing in the media.  Misinformation is one of the fastest ways to spread hate. Combat it!  It is your responsibility as a Jewish person to find that common ground and only from there can you have a meaningful and respectful conversation.

I have been having these conversations since middle school.  No one said it would be easy being a Jewish person in 2024, but it is meaningful and something that you should carry with pride because being Jewish is pretty amazing!

Finally, I would argue that this step is the most important of them all. Do not combat hate with more hate!  Combat hate with education and the ability to rise above!  Someone saying something hateful to you is not an excuse to attack that person. If you truly want someone to understand that something they said hurt you, sit down and talk to them about why it hurt you.

Since the horrific events of  October 7th,  we are allowed to have compassion for another group that has been hurt, even if we do not agree with that group. I go to school and work with Palestinians.  As Jewish people, we should always mourn the loss of innocent lives and have empathy for those who have lost their homes and their families. If someone at school or work blames you for the loss of their family, know that you are not the spokesperson for Israel just because you are Jewish and know that blaming you is wrong.  Try to understand the deep loss that person might have faced start a conversation and explain the loss you have also felt.

This realization is all very important for navigating a high school campus.  I will be taking it with me next year at college.  Hopefully, many of the other seniors will as well.

I would love to say that antisemitism stops when you go to college, but from what we are seeing it only gets worse. This should not be happening, but it does.  College students are supposed to be well educated but this still occurs.   Above all, do not feel hopeless or unsupported.  I do not feel that way and neither should you!

Jewish teens in 2024 are strong and speak out when they see something unjust.   Looking at the future, these experiences should make us even stronger!

Be proud of being a Jew!

Engage in dialogue with your peers!

Combat hate with education!

These instructions come with challenges of course, but it’s nothing we cannot handle.  If we follow these three steps, I feel that we will emerge and appear as very strong Jews.

(Liz Geier attend the URJ’s Heller High and the International March of the Living.  She will be attending the University of Wisconsin next year.)

About the Author
Fred Guttman is the Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has served on the Commission of Social Action for Reform Judaism. He has been recognized as one of the “50 Voices for Justice” by the URJ and by the Forward Magazine as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” In March 2015, he organized the National Jewish commemoration in Selma of the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March.