Breaking barriers: Student to Student program promotes conversation between Jews and non-Jews

Student to Student (STS) is a program where Jewish high schoolers around the greater Washington area come together and present all about Judaism to non-Jewish groups of people.

STS operates within the JCRC, the Jewish Community Relations Council, an organization that focuses on Jewish community outreach through social justice missions and interfaith works. Three years ago, JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel, mother to senior Josh Siegel and seventh-grader Rafi Siegel, brought on board Program Director Sara Winkleman to introduce the Student to Student Initiative.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for Jewish teens throughout the area, especially for Josh and other JDS students, so I came to him and asked him to participate with a friend or two,” Franklin Siegel said.

For senior Hailey Weiss, participating in STS is her way of trying to dismantle common misconceptions about Judaism. According to Weiss, who did not have the most positive experience in public school, being able to participate in the program and talk about something she is passionate about is very meaningful.

“I did not have the best public school experience, especially surrounding my Judaism, and I really wanted to educate people on how that should be changed,” Weiss said.

For the past two years, Josh has participated in the program and is excited to take on his second year as a group leader. He is also pleased to see how the program has expanded in such a short time, especially to other teens of different Jewish denominations around the greater Washington area, which he says is crucial to the success of each presentation.

“We try to get a big diverse group of Jewish backgrounds. There are people from JDS, there are people from Berman, but we have mostly public school kids,” Josh said. “In every presentation, we try to have a Reform person, a Conservative person and an Orthodox person to talk about how we all observe Judaism in our own way.”

Winkleman feels that the way the teens share their own stories with others is what makes the program so powerful. She says that although the typical presentation covers the day to day things in the life of a Jewish teen, the curriculum covers the basic concepts of Judaism that are sometimes known by name, but not by what they actually mean to Jews.

“Teens don’t need to be experts, they just have to talk about what Judaism means to them,” Winkleman said. “It is done through a basic outline covering topics such as life cycles, Shabbat, Kashrut, Israel, Holocaust, antisemitism and the holidays.”

Franklin Siegel feels that STS has had a greater impact on the outside community as well. After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh last year, a Sikh temple reached out to JCRC that led to presentations from both religions.

“We ended up giving presentations to each other about our own religions. I think it was a really powerful experience for everyone, and as a parent, I talked to a bunch of the Sikh moms that attended and, we all thought the way everything was coordinated and presented was just amazing, educational and powerful, especially since it all came from the teens,” Franklin Siegel said.

For Winkleman, it is the message and experiences that each teen gets out of it and the overall goal of the program that means the most.

“This program is an opportunity for all of us to do something proactive and positive to help decrease bias and bigotry. And unfortunately, this world seems to need this program more than ever,” Winkleman said. “We have teens who speak passionately about the antisemitism they have experienced in their public high schools and the power and support they receive from the teens they share with is amazing.”

This story was featured in Volume 37, Issue 2 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on Oct. 4, 2019.