By Mary Eshet
It is easy to become distressed about increasing trends of antisemitism, but difficult to answer the question, what can we do? For high school students Rosie Smolowitz and Max Harr, the Student to Student program offers a way for them to take action. The program, now offered by the Stan Greenspon Holocaust and Social Justice Education Center in Charlotte, equips Jewish high school students to share information about their culture and traditions with other students. This program is part of Be the Narrative, an organization based in St. Louis.
“As the great-grandchild of Holocaust survivors, it is very important to me to do anything I can to help combat antisemitism,” said Max, a sophomore at Providence High School. “My Judaism is a part of my daily life and I have always talked to my non-Jewish friends about my traditions. Recently I realized that in doing so, I may have a positive impact. Student to Student has given me the chance to do so in a more formal manner, reaching many more peers.”
Student to Student was created in 1992 by the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which expanded the program to other cities during the 2017-2018 school year. In 2022, the JCRC spun off the program and an independent, national organization was created: Be the Narrative. The CEO is Rabbi Andrew Terkel and Student to Student is currently its primary program.
On February 23, Fawn Chapel, the national Student to Student program director, traveled from St. Louis to lead a training session for Jewish teen participants at the Greenspon Center on the Queens University campus. Student to Student is now live in 12 cities, and Fawn says presenters have gained leadership skills, strengthened their Jewish identity, and acquired tools for dealing with antisemitism through the program. Each time they present, they are demystifying Judaism for more young people, and hopefully helping to stop antisemitism before it begins.
On Friday, March 17, Rosie and Max shared the inaugural Student to Student presentation in Charlotte with seventh and eighth graders at Rea Farms STEAM Academy. Rosie and Max were expecting an audience of about 30 students, but seemed totally unfazed to learn there would be 140, crammed together on bleachers in the gym!
They laid their props out on a table: a Torah scroll, mezuzah, yarmulke, seder plate, shofar, dreidel, and chanukiah. They also exhibited the very heavy tome, “Every Single One was Someone,” which comprises 1,250 pages of the word “Jew” printed 6,000,000 times to represent those who died in the Holocaust.
The two covered immense ground in a fast-paced 45 minutes. They explained the three branches of Judaism, life cycle events of a bris/naming ceremony, b’nei mitzvah, marriage, and death. They described Shabbat, and were a huge hit with the students as they passed out challah rolls to everyone and encouraged them to say Shabbat shalom to each other.
Max elaborated on his bar mitzvah, which had to occur virtually during COVID. He noted that he read from the Torah in Hebrew, and Rosie explained the Hebrew language uses different letters and is read from right to left. She asked if anyone wanted her to write their name in Hebrew. It seemed they all did, and she demonstrated with a few on the flip chart.
Rosie and Max did not shy away from difficult topics. They talked about the Holocaust and shared personal experiences with antisemitism. Max told the students he had heard his peers refer to Judaism as a “cult.” Rosie talked about a time in her life when she hid her Jewish identity, ceasing to wear her Star of David necklace except at Jewish events.
Kashrut was the next topic, and Max shared that cheeseburgers are off the menu for those following Kosher diets. Rosie drew various kosher symbols on a flip chart. With respect to the Jewish holidays, students were most familiar with Chanukah, but came away with information about Passover and the seder. Max demonstrated blowing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah.
After the prepared presentation, the students asked questions until time ran out. They were curious about where the nearest temple is, how often Jews pray, the impact of the Holocaust on them, what the dreidel was for, why Jews wear a yarmulke, what Jews believe about the afterlife, and why mirrors are covered during shiva.
As the presentation ended, Max, Rosie, and the staff handed out Oreos to the students, pointing out the kosher symbol on the package.
One teacher remarked, “I watched my Jewish students during this presentation and they were just beaming with pride.”
“I will definitely do this again,” said Rosie, a junior at Myers Park High School. “I was surprised at how attentively the students listened to the presentation. I really like doing this for middle schoolers and having the chance to help stop antisemitism before they get to high school.”
Photo caption: Max Harr demonstrates blowing the shofar as he and Rosie Smolowitz share Jewish culture and traditions with Rea Farms STEAM Academy students.