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YU News

Led by YU Undergrads, Eimatai Conference Helps High Schoolers Across North America Become Leaders

Feb 25, 2009 -- High school students from across North America will hone their leadership skills at the bi-annual Eimatai Leadership Development Conference on March 1 – 3 at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. The conference is sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF).

The gathering, which began nine years ago, is an opportunity for students to discuss issues and challenges facing the Jewish community with a view to understanding how they can make a positive impact. This year’s theme will be “Citizen Jew vs. Jewish Citizen: Exploring a Dual Identity.”

“The students attending the conference will explore both their Jewish values and national values,” said Aaron Steinberg, director of the Eimatai Leadership Development Project. “They will explore potential conflicts that may arise as a result of their dual allegiances and dig deeper toward a better understanding of their identities as young American or Canadian Jews.”

The students will also explore issues related to the way Jewish communities are formed, the characteristics that make someone a 'good person' and the balance between allegiance to both Israel and a home country.

Inspired by the rural location of the conference, an additional focus on environmental issues is planned to unite the students with a common goal of decreasing energy waste in their local communities.

Fourteen undergraduate Yeshiva University students who received in-depth training for six months will lead the conference. The student “advisors” facilitate discussion groups, create informal educational programs and mentor the high schoolers in activist projects that they undertake after the event.

The conference is an invaluable leadership experience for the advisors as well. “This process shows them how to create an educational curriculum and how to be effective informal educators,” Steinberg said. “This is valuable experience for advisors who aspire to careers in formal and informal education."

For Stern College junior Yael Ausbel, the opportunity to be an advisor is particularly exciting. A former Eimatai participant herself as a student at Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Ausbel brings added insight. “I think having the student's perspective and the ability to understand what Eimatai participants are going through will help me be a better advisor,” she said.

Eighty student representatives from 11 schools across the United States and Canada will participate. They include: Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, IL; Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit in Detroit, MI; Akiva Hebrew Day School, Detroit; Yavneh Academy of Dallas in Dallas, TX; Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, MD; Beth Tfiloh Community High School in Baltimore, MD; Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in West Hempstead, NY; Yeshiva University High School for Girls in Holliswood, NY; and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva in Toronto, ON.

After the conference, students from each school develop a program to implement in their community under the mentorship of the Eimatai advisors. One of the most successful initiatives to date, Project Ray’ut, was launched by Ausbel and her friend, Joyce Tessel, after their first Eimatai conference. They created a project that fulfilled what they felt was lacking in their school.

“We were hoping to find a way to help our peers learn about connecting to the people and land of Israel,” she said. Through Project Ray’ut, juniors at Yeshiva University High School for Girls spend a week in Israel engaged in activities that address real needs in Israeli society, such as cleaning bomb shelters, planting trees and working at a soup kitchen and an Ethiopian absorption center.

Other Eimatai projects have included developing parks in low-income neighborhoods, revamping a local food pantry and creating environmental awareness initiatives. Advisors help students assess the needs of their project and support them for the remainder of the year.

“Eimatai strives to cultivate a community of student leaders,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the CJF. “The critical aspect of this initiative is that it creates relationships that continue throughout the year. It not only inspires the student representatives but transforms entire schools through the student leadership projects.”