Mia has been having a hard time. Ever since the Israel-Palestinian conflict flared into violence in May, she’s felt stressed and isolated in the face of an onslaught of rhetoric from peers that has ranged from anti-Israel to antisemitic.
That’s why the tenth-grader joined a Zoom call on May 26 where rabbis from across the Bay Area provided a safe space to speak and an open heart to listen.
“I was feeling so ostracized and hurt by all these people I really loved, and I just wanted to feel safe,” said Mia.
The Zoom call was organized by Rabbi Ryan Bauer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, with help from Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Bauer told J. he’d been hearing the same thing time and time again in the past weeks: Young people were feeling harassed and helpless. Many are in college, away from home and their Jewish communities for the first time, and feeling the pressure of a sharp rise in antisemitism.
“It was really heartbreaking, heartbreaking,” Bauer said. “I realized how different it was to how I grew up.”
Mia, an Emanu-El member who goes to school in Toronto, said she is deeply passionate about climate and social justice and is involved in youth activism on those issues. But she’d been feeling increasingly pushed out and alienated as the conflict in the Middle East began to dominate social media, both in accounts of peers and on the feeds of leaders in the Gen Z movements she admires.
“I just feel so hurt by that because I want to put my whole heart, soul and mind into these issues,” she said.
Mia feels it’s not just Israel support that has become controversial, but says that even being Jewish has become a shibboleth that prevents participation in activist causes, even when the ostensible issue is close to home, like support for LGBTQ rights.
“I feel as though I can’t be part of those circles,” she said. “When I’m part of those circles I have to hide who I am.”
Emma Tick-Raker, a junior at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo who also joined the call, said she’s hearing a similar message from students around her.
“Definitely a lot of people are distraught,” she said Tick-Raker, who is also president of the campus Hillel. “And it’s definitely hard, because I feel like social media, and media in general, plays such a large role in how people feel.”
Tick-Raker, who grew up in San Francisco, said opinions about the conflict were being taken to extremes on social media.
“It feels like there’s a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric, and that’s translating to anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, antisemitic,” she said.
Additionally, social media doesn’t lend itself to nuance. Tick-Raker said it is hard to have a balanced conversation online.
“One big thing I’m hearing is people are frustrated with disinformation and think a lot of the news is so one-sided,” she said.
Ari, Mia’s sister, agreed. She’s in 12th grade and said people she knows treat what is a complex, historical issue as if it were black and white.
“It’s just not,” she said.
Mia said misinformation is common, but even more painful are personal messages from people whom she knows that feel disrespectful.
“They feel confident telling me what is and what isn’t antisemitism,” she said.
The girls’ mother said she and her husband feel powerless and confused, “in part because the terrain on which so much of this is playing out is social media,” she said. “If difficult conversations were happening mainly at school, we could work with the administration to help address the dynamic. But I think those adults feel similarly powerless.”
Tick-Raker is dealing with it all by choosing to take a break, she said.
“I got so overwhelmed, I had to take a social media hiatus,” she explained. “It was not good for my mental health.”
For Mia and Ari, the Zoom call offered relief, allowing them to let out their fears and frustration in a safe space. It was attended by rabbis from around the Bay, including Lisa Kingston and Laura Rumpf of Peninsula Temple Beth El, Liora Alban of Peninsula Temple Sholom, Jeremy Morrison of Congregation Beth Am, Nat Ezray of Beth Jacob Congregation, David Booth of Kol Emeth, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai, Alissa Miller of Temple Isaiah, Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom, Bill Futornick of Congregation Beth Jacob and others from Emanu-El. After a group session, rabbis broke out into small groups with young people from their communities.
Bauer said it became clear to him that the forum was necessary. “At Emanu-El we are currently talking with the clergy about doing a weekly check-in,” he said.
Ari, though, is thinking about the future. She’s wondering how it will be after the pandemic, when teens’ relationships move to in person. Even though there’s a cease-fire in Israel, she’s not so sure that at her school it will be easy to go back to normal.
“There are things that are really hard to look past,” she said.