Current affairs spur students at Kehillah to take action

Sarah Elyon tried hard to avoid the news from Israel, which every day brought word of another terrorist stabbing. Then one day the Kehillah Jewish High School senior couldn’t avoid it anymore.

“We were talking about it in class,” the 17-year-old said. “I watched a very graphic, very intense clip of one of the attacks, and I got really scared. It hit me: This is really happening. I was devastated. I cried. I was upset all day.”

Roee Landesman (left) and Sarah Elyon photos/kehillah-lisa strauss

She talked to her equally distressed classmate, Roee Landesman, 17, and asked, “Why are we not doing anything?” On the spot, they decided they had to act.

In a matter of days, Roee and Sarah organized Israel Week at Kehillah, which not only memorialized victims of the current spate of terror attacks, but also sought to instill renewed pride in Israel among the school’s 185 students.

Israel Week took place last week and its organizers are justifiably gratified.

“It was important for me to say that we as a Jewish school are totally pro-Israel,” said Roee, who lives in Cupertino. “But if only one person came out of this saying I love Israel, then I did my job.”

Roee and Sarah both have Israeli parents, speak fluent Hebrew and have been to Israel many times. Roee’s sister, Rotem, currently is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. With that background motivating them, they decided that for one week, the school would be decorated blue-and-white top to bottom, and positive images of Israel would hang from every wall.

Over the course of the five days, they and some helpers put up more than 100 photos of Israel around the campus, and each day hung a large sheet of paper with a question that challenged students to ponder their relationship to Israel and its predicament.

“The student body either doesn’t know or doesn’t care,” said Sarah, who lives in Sunnyvale. “We had interactive wall space, and many students responded. Doing this project brought [Israel] to the forefront of their minds. It was not possible to avoid it, and for some it was really beneficial.”

Each day featured a theme. Monday was about pride in Israel. Students were asked to dress in blue and white, and volunteers displayed pictures of Israeli food, celebrities and notable tourist spots. The question of the day: How do you connect with Israel? Students wrote their answer on the paper.

Tuesday focused on history and roots. The daily question was “How does history define you?” Wednesday was about loss and how to cope with it, while Thursday confronted the latest terror attacks. The high point of that day: a school-wide memorial for the victims, including the reading of their names out loud. The week wrapped up with the theme of action and advocacy.

Writing answers to the Israel question of the day

“The last two days were the best of the campaign,” Sarah said. “[The memorial] had a more somber feel, with the flag lowered to half mast and a candle lit in the lobby. People took the service really seriously. It was silent in the room the entire time. That was the day the most people responded to the interactive wall.”

Roee and Sarah did not pull it off alone. They had the help of volunteers from Kehillah’s Israel Club and supervision from Rabbi Michelle Greenberg, the school’s dean of students.

Greenberg couldn’t be prouder of the two teen advocates.

“The kids needed to take action, being thousands of miles away [from Israel], and not having that immediacy where they could hold someone’s hand,” she said. “I’m really proud of them, and all our students. I see so much growth.”

Though their Israel Week is over, the terror in Israel is not. Roee and Sarah said they want to take further action as the school year goes on. Meanwhile, both are pleased with the impact their work had on fellow students.

“For those with not such a pro-Israel views, it really opened their minds,” Sarah noted. “The second I started working on this I realized this is what my trips to Israel have taught me. When things go wrong, you rise up, do advocacy and educate. I started in a place of fear and sadness, and was able to move past that and do something I’m really proud of.”

Added Roee, “If I was known as the kid who brought Israel to the school in an accessible manner, I would consider that a success.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.