Developing Our Next Generation of Jewish Leaders

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a veteran in combatting the anti-Semitic BDS movement, expressed its appreciation for the amazing bipartisan support for the anti-BDS resolution that just passed in Congress. It is imperative to realize that all of this was achieved because people cared and let their elected officials know how much the issue affects Israel and world Jewry.

This premise is critical in understanding the importance of how one of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s programs, which I will detail here, is helping to ensure that there will be a new generation of activists who will possess the skill set necessary to make a difference in our democracy.

Witness Isabelle de Brabanter, a Cornell student who as a member of the 2017 Wiesenthal Government Advocacy Internship Program successfully lobbied the mayor of her town, North Caldwell, to pass an anti-BDS resolution. Not fully satisfied, Isabelle then helped make sure that her local elected officials connected her and the Wiesenthal Center to the neighboring townships of Caldwell and West Caldwell; as a result of her work, those towns also passed anti-BDS resolutions.

I am so proud that Stefanie Jeffries of the 2016 Wiesenthal Center Advocacy Internship Program lobbied her local elected officials to do the same in her southern New Jersey community. She now has been asked to serve on the board of the Southern New Jersey Jewish Community Relations Council — at the age of 22.

Witness Justin Feldman of Englewood, another Wiesenthal Advocacy Internship Program graduate, who stood up in Mahwah against anti- Semitic activities being perpetrated there and convinced a reporter who he met onsite to allow him to write an op-ed, so that the entire community could understand our larger cimmunal concerns.

Samantha Stern of the program’s 2018 group has not been passive in the face of spiking anti-Semitism in New York. She asked me to help her secure a summer internship at New York State Attorney General Leticia James’ office. That was the perfect choice —the program had placed Samantha in Ms. James office when she was New York City’s Public Advocate the year before. Samantha knew she could make a difference, and she has!

What excites me is when the work that the Simon Wiesenthal Center does, and the programs we develop to instill the skills and commitment in our next generation that they will need to confront all the challenges coming our way. What makes me feel that we are achieving something incredibly significant is that during the 15 or 20 minutes before the program’s weekly seminar, when participants have time to socialize casually, you hear the conversations about how a particular state senator did this or a council member did that. Since the interns purposely are selected from across the wide spectrum of the Jewish community in terms of level of religious observance and geography, among other factors, the connections they build from week to week matters. The interactions among the young people who we hope will be the next generation of Jewish leaders will help them understand our need to be unified as we fight those whose bigotry leads them to anti-Semitism.

What you see each year is students’ development from wanting to engage on these issues ideologically to understanding the practical and strategic applications of actually moving the needle.  In the program’s most recent seminar on the various kinds of activism, New York State Assembly Member Walter Mosley discussed the process that leads elected officials to act on a particular issue. I was happy to see that hands went up almost immediately when the interns asked what could be done about the now infamous congressional “squad” when its members speak out disparagingly about the Jewish world.What kept me inspired is that suddenly these college age students not only cared, but showed that they wanted to make a real difference. The students fired off questions about the rules of the House versus the floor rules of the various legislative branches that they were interning for; they wanted to know about the press implications, about the credibility of lobbyists who might approach an elected official on such matters, and most of all, how they can act and make an impact.

I am honored to be part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and to contribute directly to help these students become tomorrow’s leaders.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.