Sydney Siegel
StandWithUs High School Alumni

How I Realized Education is the Path to Peace

I am proud to be selected as 2018-2019 StandWithUs High School “Intern of the Year” for the Southeast region. I participated in the program as a senior in high school in Atlanta, Georgia. 

StandWithUs is an eighteen-year-old international Israel organization that educates people around the world about Israel, stands up to misinformation and hate and combats Antisemitism. We believe education is the road to peace.

Started in 2012, the StandWithUs High School Internship is a year-long leadership program that prepares students for the challenges we may face regarding Israel in college and in our communities.

Ninety-one Interns participated in the 2018-2019 school year and spread out around the US and Canada. It is an in-depth program that helps the participants educate our peers.

I was supported by 17 StandWithUs Southeast High School Interns and our mentor, Rayna Rose Exelbierd. Together we held 230 events reaching 29,000 people in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. This was a record for the entire high school department!

I was privileged to be in constant communication with all of my fellow-interns either via large group texts or our thought-provoking monthly, discussion-based webinars where we got to see each other on a video call. The community we created made each of our individual successes even more dynamic. I grew as a person, as an Israel educator, and as a young professional. The skills I learned and tools I am now able to use are endless and I am deeply grateful.

One of the requirements of the Internship is to run a minimum of four programs at our schools and in our communities. We receive funding and guidance to do so. I planned and executed ten educational, engaging, and exciting events reaching 1,400 people in Atlanta, Georgia.

I am most proud of my “Heroes of the Holocaust” series of events. I approached three local elementary schools and created a program specifically to educate the fifth-grade class. I spoke to a total of 500 students about the Holocaust and Antisemitism.

My presentation was unique. Since learning about the Holocaust during my trip to Poland and seeing what happened with my own eyes, I was anxious to share my experiences. Sadly, we are the last generation to be able to hear a Holocaust Survivor’s story firsthand. I thought it was essential to first relay the horrific details, and then, share stories of extraordinarily brave people who saved lives. I spoke of heroes like Anne Frank who most people have heard of, but also of some heroes, the students had never heard of. I remember reading Anne’s diary when I was about the same age as the students I spoke to. My overall message was to always see the silver lining in every situation and, if a 13-year old, like Anne Frank, was able to stay optimistic during the Holocaust, we can do anything.

Another requirement of the StandWithUs High School Internship is to attend two conferences. The first is the 5-day training held in August in Los Angeles. Students attend sessions ranging from how to run events, how to distinguish when legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into Antisemitism, and professional development training. Interns leave motivated and excited to make a difference in our schools and communities by inspiring people of all ages.

Looking back, the August conference was a highlight of the Internship. I realized how lucky I was to be part of such an incredible organization. I was introduced to the various departments that are always ready to help us such as legal, campus, media, and many others. StandWithUs even has LINK, an innovative middle school curriculum to educate students about Israel. Learning about all of the different aspects of StandWithUs gave me the confidence to pursue my goals knowing I will always be supported by something bigger than myself.

We also learned about fun and educational tools StandWithUs has which we can bring to our communities. I was most excited about the Virtual Reality goggles where viewers can choose locations in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and “walk-visit” beaches, tourist attractions, markets, and historic sites.

I brought the VR goggles to my community several times and was amazed by how they affected my peers. I realized the different levels of education people have about Israel. Most people assume since Israel is in the Middle East, it is made up of golden sand dunes and nothing else. When they see the diversity and history of the land, the most common reaction is wanting to plan a vacation there. For example, my synagogue youth group learned about Israel in religious school but did not have much experience visualizing the country. The primarily non-Jewish students at my public high school got much of their knowledge about Israel from the news. The VR goggles showed them a completely different perspective-one that is positive and beautiful.

In March, I had the privilege of attending StandWithUs’ International Conference in Los Angeles. This is an annual gathering of more than 500 local and international students and community members who hear from experts and scholars dedicated to educating about Israel and standing up for the Jewish people. I was inspired by the fact that everyone involved with StandWithUs has their own Israel story and all came to share their love of Israel from different backgrounds.

Two of the speakers I most admired are Hussein Aboubakr and Neil Lazarus.

Hussein is not the typical Pro-Israel speaker I expected to hear from. Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1989, Hussein was taught to hate Israel and the “bloodthirsty Zionists.” He studied Hebrew at Cairo University but did not appreciate the Antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric in the textbooks and documentaries. He began to study the supposed enemies of his people. Unfortunately, the Egyptian state police began harassing Hussein for having a different view. He was jailed and tortured. He became a leader in the Tahrir Square uprising. Tortured and jailed again, he nearly committed suicide but survived.  Hussein eventually received asylum in the United States. He taught Hebrew as an Assistant professor until StandWithUs hired him this year. I most admire Hussein for his determination and perseverance even when those surrounding him punished him for his ideas and his actions.

Neil Lazarus, of Awesome Seminars, is known internationally for his informative, challenging, and inspirational speeches about the Middle East, public diplomacy, and effective communications training. Neil is an expert in the field of Israel education and definitely the most entertaining speaker I’ve ever heard. His ability to engage large crowds through humor and challenging information is astounding.

At the International Conference, we heard from people from all walks of life including entrepreneurs, Congressmen, and scholars. Without them, who knows where we would be in the fight to stop Antisemitism and respond to misinformation about Israel.

Stay tuned for part two coming next week…

About the Author
Sydney is a student at Florida State University studying Interdisciplinary Medical Sciences. Danielle is a student at Florida State University studying Public Relations. Both women are passionate about Israel, Judaism, fighting Antisemitism, and spreading light onto this world.
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