Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis

JCRC informs, collaborates, advocates, and mobilizes the St. Louis Jewish community to take action locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally to address issues important to both the Jewish and general communities.

Location: St Louis , MO
Year founded: 1938

Description

The Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis (JCRC) works within the Jewish and broader communities in St. Louis to enhance cooperation with other religious, racial, ethnic and civic groups; foster a just, democratic and pluralistic society; and promote the security of Israel and Jews everywhere. Guided by Jewish values, the JCRC advocates, educates, collaborates and mobilizes action on issues important to the Jewish community. JCRC envisions a more just society and a strong, vibrant Jewish community in the United States and in Israel, and seeks to enhance that strength and vibrancy through collaboration with other communities. To that end, we work to:

  • Promote equality of opportunity and full civil rights and civil liberties for Jewish and all other racial, religious and ethnic groups in Missouri;
  • Encourage amicable relationship, mutual understanding and respect among various religious, ethnic, civic, and political groups;
  • Create and maintain conditions that are conducive to encouraging the continuity and vitality of Jewish people living in a pluralistic society;
  • Combat antisemitism and other forms of racism or group prejudice.
Student to Student 2019

About

Student to Student began in 1992 when Batya Abramson-Goldstein, then Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, saw the positive effect that Israeli high school students had on a classroom of American peers. She had presented on Judaism for teenagers from time to time but had never gotten the enthusiastic reaction she witnessed when the Israelis spoke. Abramson-Goldstein noted, “When I did it, it was almost like a window shade coming down on the students’ eyes. ‘Ugh, another teacher, another class.”’ Instead, she realized, the way to really reach teens was through other teens.


Student to Student began with six students. Now, 27 years later, the program engages nearly 120 Jewish teens annually who are taught to combat antisemitism by authentically sharing their Jewish and teenage identities with non-Jewish peers. These presentations confront stereotypes and misinformation, while countering geographic trends that make personal relationships with Jewish individuals unlikely in some neighborhoods. Student to Student reaches over four thousand non-Jewish teens annually, many of whom have never encountered or interacted with someone from the Jewish community. As one teacher stated about the program, “My students always learn so much from these presentations and have the edges of their world pushed out.” By engaging youth and exposing non-Jewish students to their Jewish peers, Student to Student transforms the relationship between the Jewish community and other religious and ethnic communities in St. Louis.


Student to Student is an antidote to fear and distrust through the simple approach of empowering teens to step outside of their comfort zones and speak openly with non-Jewish peers about their experiences. With the rise in hate crimes and hate speech-- especially anti-semitic attacks (according to the ADL, antisemitic acts, both crimes and non-criminal behavior, nearly doubled at U.S. elementary and secondary schools in 2017), with established interest from other cities in adopting this program, and with 27 years of on-the-ground experience and proven success, the St. Louis JCRC would like to continue sharing this program with the rest of the country.

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What is the mission and purpose of this program?

Student to Student empowers Jewish teens to talk about their Judaism and Israel with proficiency, authenticity, and confidence. Student to Student fights antisemitism through peer-to-peer presentations to diverse audiences and, in doing so, grows the leadership and communication skills of the teenage participants.

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Program Description

Student to Student recruits about 120 Jewish high school juniors and seniors each year, empowering them to share their lives with those of other faith, ethnic, and cultural identities. Participants comprise groups of four, with an emphasis on including at least one person in each group who identifies with the Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform traditions. They present throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area in public and parochial schools to classes studying a variety of subjects, including World History, Literature, World Religions and Hebrew Scriptures.


At its core, Student to Student is a prosocial activity as Jewish students engage non-Jewish peers by speaking informally about their experiences as Jewish teens as well as authentically and respectfully responding to questions. Jewish presenters introduce themselves, the high schools they attend, their interests and activities, and how they identify Jewishly. While students in the classroom benefit from learning about the experience of Judaism, they most strongly connect to the presenters when they hear about the participants’ involvement in debate, basketball, theater, and other similar activities. In between sharing their experiences or knowledge of Jewish lifecycle events, Shabbat, dietary practices, Israel, the Holocaust, and their own experiences of antisemitism, participants also talk about hanging out with friends, favorite movies, and music preferences. Participants bring as many personal props as they can, from tefillin and tallit to challah to sample, to engage their teen audiences. As one participant of the program stated, “The program is about breaking stereotypes, educating peers, and creating a more peaceful global society. The reason Student to Student is able to be successful is that it allows teenagers to teach teenagers, instead of adults lecturing teenagers. The difference is incredible. When I would go on a visit, the students were so excited to listen and ask questions, which to me proved their engagement.”


While facilitating interaction between Jewish students of diverse backgrounds, the program also presents multi-faceted and individualized expressions of Judaism, making it more difficult for non-Jews to stereotype. Educators find their courses enhanced by the exposure to the lived experience of Judaism as students in the classroom have a face to put to the abstract lessons of “the other.” As one teacher said in response to the program, “I am indebted to the people behind this program. My students are exposed to a wider vision of the world at large and to a deeper appreciation of Judaism in particular. I find this to be invaluable in my teaching. My students are invariably awed by the depth of understanding these young Jewish students demonstrate. The commitment of these youngsters inspires my students. I am grateful as an educator and as a citizen for this sharing.”


Additionally, participants become comfortable presenting to large groups and gain the tools to express their Judaism. Alumni of the program have reported that the communication skills they developed giving presentations became invaluable in college and beyond as they continued to confront stereotypes, bigotry, and encounter people who had never before met someone Jewish.


Over the course of the year, participants attend training sessions that focus on responding to antisemitism, the origins of stereotypes about Jews, and the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments. With the rise in hate crimes throughout the United States, Student to Student’s winter meeting includes training by a staff member of the ADL, who engages participants in a discussion about racism and how to be an ally to those experiencing hatred.


In St. Louis, Student to Student is one of the largest organized interdenominational groups of Jewish teens. The program creates and encourages solidarity between Jewish teens who are then a resource for other interfaith prosocial activities. Participants are encouraged to participate in additional interfaith opportunities such as The Jewish and Muslim Teen Dialogue Group (JAM), interfaith Iftars, and programs offered by JCRC and its partner organizations.

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Demonstrated Need

Jews are approximately two percent of the U.S. population. In most states, the Jewish population is less. Even in urban areas where there may be a comparatively larger Jewish community, Jewish households tend to concentrate in particular neighborhoods and urban corridors. The Student to Student program allows non-Jewish and Jewish students, who would not otherwise meet or know one another, the opportunity to do so. Nearly all of the high schools that Student to Student presenters visit have virtually no Jewish presence. Without the occasion to meet members of the Jewish community, individuals are more likely to believe stereotypes and misconceptions that foster fear and mistrust.


In most American cities there are few opportunities for teens to meet someone who identifies as Jewish; we have seen that additional urban areas benefit from their own Student to Student programs. A number of people in other cities-- including Student to Student alumni now living out-of-state-- had reached out to us for resources and support to establish this program where they live. With 27 years of experience and well-developed materials and techniques, we know we can help even more communities successfully launch their own programs. To do so beyond the three existing expansion cities, we require additional resources.


As a result of our first Natan Grant in 2017, we have expanded the program to three cities. Des Moines, Indianapolis, and the metro area of Washington D.C. Demographic data demonstrated the need for this program in these locations. Des Moines and Indianapolis have small Jewish populations-- in Des Moines, about one percent of the population (approximately 2,700 people) are Jewish; in Indianapolis, 1.7 percent (approximately 18,000 people) identify as Jewish (American Jewish Population Survey, 2016). Metropolitan Washington, DC has a larger Jewish population with about six percent of the population (approximately 300,000 people) identifying as Jewish. Nevertheless, data indicates Jewish communities tend to inhabit specific zip codes, thus the need to educate the wider community in the region and help teens know Jewish peers remains crucial.


With the help of Natan’s generous gift in 2018, our staff reached out to assist the development of a Student to Student Program in the Eastern Valley of the Phoenix, Arizona region. Despite great efforts on the part of our director and our partner at the Phoenix Jewish Community Center, we have not successfully launched a program there. The JCC had a difficult time recruiting students for the program. General feedback was that both students and their parents were uncomfortable openly discussing their Judaism in public settings because of the dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in area schools. This further illustrates the need for this program and its positive benefits for the students who make the presentation as well as those who hear them.


With a 2019 Natan grant, we are proposing to expand this program to three additional U.S. cities. We are currently in dialogue with a Jewish high school in Chicago as well as the JCRC in Pittsburgh to launch the program in the coming year. Moreover, we have received interest in the program from Seattle, Buffalo, Rochester, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Columbia, SC and Orange County, NY and will be speaking with Jewish communal professionals in each city to determine the most viable partner cities for the next round of expansion.


Further, the ADL has reported a rise of antisemitic incidents, specifically 60 percent higher in 2017 than in 2016, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking incidents. The sharp rise, according to the report, was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and college campuses, which nearly doubled for a second year in a row. This indicates the need to counter ignorance and bigotry in young people. Reaching these young people in high school is an effective way to prevent and counter antisemitism before students reach university campuses.


As noted in the Natan Fund’s Confronting Antisemitism RFP in 2017, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks warns that antisemitism “is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown,” posing danger to “everyone who values freedom, compassion and humanity.” Although Student to Student focuses primarily on enhancing familiarity with and education about the Jewish community, it also addresses stereotypes against other marginalized groups. Anecdotal evidence from teachers indicates that presentations transform the way non-Jewish teens view not only Jews, but other minority groups as well, helping the students to be more open-minded and sympathetic to the perspectives and lived experiences of others.

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Program Accomplishments

From its modest beginning in 1992, when the program boasted six students and four presentations, Student to Student has grown exponentially. In St. Louis this year we have about 120 participants from fifteen different high schools. In 2017-2018 participants gave 110 presentations at 30 area high schools and reached over 4,000 non-Jewish high school peers.


Our school retention rate from year to year is ninety-five percent, indicating the value that participating schools have found in this work.


When surveyed, our graduating Jewish teens reported similarly strong and positive responses. In June 2018, all the respondents agreed that the program “helped to break down stereotypes” and that the program provided “ideas about how to respond to antisemitism and stereotypes.”


Survey results from 400 students who experienced a presentations given in St. Louis in Fall 2018 indicate that over 95% of participants believe that the presentations were either very or extremely information; and over 85% of participants indicated report that after the presentation they know “quite a bit” or “a lot” about Judaism.


Our most notable accomplishments, however, have been in the moments when we have seen the students change before our eyes as a result of the presentations.


At one presentation, a student in the audience asked many questions, which our participants always encourage, but she asked in a voice dripping with sarcasm as her friends snickered beside her. In the same tone of voice, she eventually asked, “Tell us, which of the stereotypes about Jews is the most true?” Her circle laughed out loud. The group leader stared at her for ten seconds (while the student squirmed a bit) and then responded, “Stereotypes are an attempt to take away the individuality of people. That’s what the Nazis did.” Her fellow group member added, “Look at us. We’ve told you about our activities and how we practice our Judaism. You see that we’re all different. We even look different from each other.” For the rest of the presentation, the same student continued to ask questions, but with respect rather than with sarcasm.


These stories, and many other that we can share and countless more that even we do not know, are what make us most proud to continue in this work.


Our most recent program accomplishment is the expansion of our Student to Student program into three new cities. In the first expansion year (2018), our partners received the following results:  


Des Moines


  • Spring 2018: 11 participants gave eight presentations to school and church groups, reaching more than 250 young people.

  • Fall 2018: 10 participants who have given two presentations thus far to a school and a church group, reaching more than 60 people and ore presentations are in the works for the spring semester.

Indianapolis


  • Spring, 2018: 14 participants gave five presentations in church and high school classes, reaching over 110 young people, nearly 25% of whom had never previously met a Jewish person.
  • Fall, 2018: 13 participants gave three presentations, two at Catholic schools and one at a public school, reaching at least 65 young people, and more presentations are planned for the spring semester.

Washington, D.C.


  • Spring, 2018: 11 students gave five presentations in public schools.
  • Fall, 2018: 40 students gave 10 presentations in churches, a Sikh Temple, private Catholic schools and public schools in both Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County VA and their goal is to reach 30 presentations by the end of the academic year.

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How do you measure the success of your program?

We measure the success of the program through a variety of factors. Each year we poll the participants to gauge their perception of the impact the program has had on them over the course of the year. We also take note of the retention rate of schools that invite us to return year after year. By these measures, we believe our program has been enormously successful to date. When surveyed in the spring of 2018, our graduating Jewish teens agreed that the program “helped to break down stereotypes” and that the program provided “ideas about how to respond to antisemitism and stereotypes.” Moreover, our school retention rate has remained steady at 95 percent over recent years. We attribute both of these factors to the transformational experience of peer-to-peer presentations and prosocial interactions.


We are developing an annual survey for host teachers as well in order to measure the impact they witness of presentations on their classes and lessons. Additionally, we have created a short survey to collect data from the students after presentations.  Additionally, we have developed a longitudinal tool that can give us insight in to the long-term impact of the program.


These surveys have been shared with our partner cities so they can also track evaluation data.


As is always the case with community relations, our best measure of success comes through anecdotal evidence. It would be impossible to share all of the stories, but we constantly hear from our participants who tell us that they feel more confident and educated through their involvement in the program, from parents of participants who share how proud they are of their child and, in some instances, how grateful they are to the program for engaging their child Jewishly when they had no other Jewish engagement, from alumni who call to thank us for preparing them to respond to stereotypes and misconceptions about Judaism, and teachers who often report that their students rank the Student to Student presentation as their favorite part of the course.


Another mechanism to measure the success of the program is its ability to be replicated. We have successfully launched the program in Des Moines, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. We have provided some assistance to Richmond, Virginia and Phoenix, AZ.


With the expansion communities, we encountered challenges with recruiting students and recruiting schools for presentations, as well as staffing challenges at the local agencies. Through these experiences we have refined our knowledge and experience and are better equipped to continue expanding Student to Student to other interested cities.

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