By Talia Levin ‘20
On February 12th, students opened their emails to find a message from senior Sam Levy saying that from April 14th-17th, a group of Heschel students would be attending the 10th annual national J Street conference in Washington D.C. J Street describes itself as a group that “organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.” In his email, Levy described AIPAC as being aligned with Dan Senor and J Street with Peter Beinart, two prominent figures who spoke at Heschel’s Israel week program. Because of J Street’s support for a two-state solution, it is considered to be on the political left of American-Israeli advocacy groups.
When Heschel has sent delegations to J Street in the past, they found that there was limited high school-level engagement. There is no formal high school track because J Street is a young organization and hasn’t yet expanded to include one. However, Heschel may partner with Gann Academy in Boston to send an unofficial high school delegation together.
Levy is passionate about Israel and started an Israel seminar this year at Heschel. While he enjoyed attending the AIPAC Policy Conference this month, his personal opinions align more with J Street. He said, “It’s important to recognize that there are multiple views of Israel … AIPAC says they are bipartisan, but clearly that isn’t the case.” He views AIPAC as relatively one-sided and not completely encompassing his views. Levy explained, “I think that people should go to AIPAC and J Street, not just the one that they agree with.” In order to set up a delegation to attend the J Street conference, he spoke to Ilana Sidorsky, Israel and Hesed Educator and member of the department of Jewish and Student Life. As a result, Johanna Press was designated to be the faculty chaperone. Sam has received six responses from interested juniors and seniors.
Rebecca Cruz, a senior, hopes to attend the J Street conference. She says that she is excited that there is “an opportunity to have basically a liberal version of AIPAC that is available to me and more aligned with my views on Israel.” She feels that she had not been represented ideologically up until this point and has felt like an outsider due to her opinions, saying, “It’s good for the school that there’s more representation even on one subset of a Jewish issue.”
Many students are indifferent or do not know a lot about J Street. Among those who attended AIPAC, there are varying responses. Some view J Street as a more left-wing, pro-israel lobby organization, while some view it as anti-Israel. Shira Shans, a junior, attended the AIPAC conference this year because she “love[s] Israel and wanted to learn more about Israel and advocate for Israel.” Regarding J Street she said, “I felt like I didn’t want to go because I had already gone to AIPAC and gotten that experience.” She acknowledged that they are ideologically different, but views them as similar experiences in regards to the type of conference. “I’m always open to learning more… My political stances are based on facts and I’m assuming they would teach facts there, so I’m assuming it wouldn’t go against [my political stances].” In contrast, freshman Maya Lukeman who also attended this year’s AIPAC conference said she believes that “AIPAC is all people going who love Israel, and J Street is people coming together to critique Israel.”
Heschel’s mission statement states that the school is dedicated to “fostering in its students a deep commitment to and a lifelong relationship with the State of Israel and its language, culture and people, in recognition of the centrality of the State of Israel to Jewish identity and to the Jewish people.”