Members of Lower Merion High School's Israeli Culture Club. Courtesy of Shuli Weinstein
Latke sales, screenings of “Beneath the Helmet,” a documentary about life in the Israeli army, and kadorei shokolad (making balls of chocolate) are some of the many events of the Israeli Culture Club at Lower Merion High School in the suburban Philadelphia town of Ardmore, Pa. The club is a great way to introduce public school students to the cultural, rather than political, aspects of Israel. We meet about once a month after school or during lunch.
“I can express my love for my [Jewish] homeland, and I can share it with my friends from school,” said club member and sophomore Melissa Gingold. “Having an Israeli Culture Club also shines a light on the very diverse community we have here at Lower Merion.”
It is important to realize that an Israeli Culture Club does not mean a Jewish Culture Club, although the overwhelming majority of members at my school’s club are Jewish. Since the club is centered around a country, rather than a religion, people of all backgrounds are welcome to join. An Israeli Culture Club is one of the only opportunities for public schoolers to learn about the country because many schools avoid teaching controversial subjects such as the Middle East conflict. Additionally, public schools are not allowed to have religion-based classes and because Israel is often associated with Judaism, this association can limit how much information about the country is taught.
One of the goals of the Israeli Culture Club is to show students the fun and amazing side of Israel, in hopes of getting students to support and defend the country. Members share a love for delicious Mediterranean food and new Israeli music. Students learn to love Israel for its culture and people, instead of associating the country as the center of political tensions and frequent terrorist attacks. Creating such a club in a public high school makes learning about the culture accessible.
Food and music are popular aspects of most meetings. Our opening event in the fall included a snack of apples and honey — a tie to the High Holidays — as well as playing an online trivia game about Israel. A cooking competition and film festival are two upcoming events. We’re organizing a “Chopped” competition with another high school’s Israeli Culture Club in our district, Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr.
The film festival will be held in our high school auditorium during the latter part of winter. While the films have not been selected yet, the festival will include non-controversial films that display Israel in a positive light.
One of the highlights of last year’s club’s programs was a cooking event featuring Israeli foods. We set up food prep stations where students could chop tomatoes for Israeli salad, smash chickpeas to make hummus, or mix together chocolate milk in a plastic bag. This was the favorite program of junior Marli Weisman. “Teenagers who supported Israel could hang out together and not only got to eat cool food, but make it too,” she said.
The Israeli Culture Club offers more than food and music; it can guide students about what to do when confronted with anti-Israel groups. At a high school such as Lower Merion, students are sheltered from confrontations over Israel. But when students go off to college they leave their safe bubbles. Many campuses are filled with anti-Israel campaigns. An Israeli Culture Club can teach students about how to respond to the anti-Israel rhetoric.
For example, at Lower Merion we are hosting a member of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization, to discuss what students should do if they encounter anti-Israel groups in college. The speaker will address which campus groups to join in order to show the benefits and communal feeling that comes with supporting this remarkable country. Bringing an Israeli Culture Club to public schools can help students grow their support for Israel as they continue in their young adult lives.
In order to create such a club, a teacher advisor will most likely be necessary to oversee the activities planned by the members. Lower Merion High School is lucky to have Mark Levy, a global studies teacher, as our current advisor. Mr. Levy said that having an Israeli Culture Club is important because many students lack Jewish connections after a bar or bat mitzvah. “This club allows them to have an outlet to explore the culture of Israel during high school,” he said.
Our club is not affiliated with a larger organization. Approximately 15 years ago a group of students who shared a love for Israel filled out a club form which explained what the group would offer to Lower Merion students. The administration then approved the organization for a trial year and the club had to prove that they had enough committed members. It has been a popular club since the very beginning and has not struggled to meet the 25-person member requirement. Since its creation, the club’s membership has continued to grow and offer a safe environment to learn about Israel.
Jen Dean, a junior, joined this amazing club, because she said it was “a fun way to learn about Israel and my heritage while being provided with good food.”
I encourage everyone lacking an Israeli Culture Club to work together with friends and create a version of this incredible club at their respective schools. Not only will the club offer a fun and safe environment to express love and appreciation for Israel, but it will also increase a powerful network of American youth who support the State of Israel.