The 42 teenagers from 18 Jewish communities across Europe were free to ask Dean Spielmann anything they liked and the judge responded with disarming candour.
“Questions ranged from the personal – examining his motivation for doing the work he does – to the functional, about how the Court works,” said the Head of World ORT’s Education Department, Daniel Tysman. “Here was one of Europe’s most influential individuals talking openly about himself and his work. It was a tremendous privilege.”
The seminar’s tightly packed schedule was intended to develop students’ interest in and knowledge of civil responsibility, representation and activism; it featured meetings at the Council of Europe and practical workshops on developing leadership skills as well as meetings with prominent members of Strasbourg’s Jewish community, as well as leaders of the local Union of Jewish Students who made news around the world last year when they successfully challenged Twitter in the French courts for failing to respond effectively to an anti-Semitic campaign.
It was the first physical meeting for the participants since they congregated in London for the opening seminar in December and was a chance to cement friendships forged since then in the on-going series of on-line webinars.
Training included practical workshops on developing skills such as communication and negotiation - essential for Jewish community leadership – and many of the students that participated in the project’s pilot in 2011 led workshops and gave presentations that helped develop a deeper understanding of Jewish history, culture and Israel-Diaspora relations.
“The alumni from last year’s inaugural program proved to be very good role models for our current participants,” Mr Tysman said. “And that’s important because creating future leaders is a long term project in which a sense of continuity is critical – and that can only come from face-to-face meetings.”
Ilana Davis, the only English member of the current group, said she was struck by the maturity of the alumni.
“We’re all about the same age but they seem much more confident. I remember at the start of the Program feeling not so confident so it was nice to see how last year’s program have turned out; we can look forward to being like them by the end,” Ilana said.
A Turkish member of this year’s program, Cenk Bonfil, agreed. “They’ve learned skills which have obviously been very useful and practical. It raises my expectations for the end of the program.”
The program, supported by the European Jewish Fund and Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, aims to identify and train young activists aged between 16 and 18 for future roles in their community’s leadership. It is designed to address the needs of smaller communities in particular, supporting their continuity as well as fostering an appreciation of their symbiotic relationship with Israel where the program culminates with an intensive two-week summer school.
Participants put what they learn into practice by implementing a project in their respective communities. For this year’s Turkish teens, that means preparing a presentation about the Holocaust which they plan to take around public schools later in the year.
“They have no idea about the Holocaust and they talk about it like it wasn’t so bad,” said Kleris Baruh. “They don’t know Jewish people and they are very prejudiced about us. So maybe they can understand us a bit more.”
However, there are concerns about how they will be received given strained relations between Turkey and Israel and the chilling effect that has had on Turkey’s Jewish community.
“Perhaps it’s brave of us to do it because we don’t know how they will react to what we tell them,” said Reysi Haleva. “We will definitely get a reaction; hopefully it won’t be too bad.”
She says the skills that she has learned on the Future Leaders Program will help her, in particular her greater ability to explain herself clearly.
Ilana said that participating in the program had made her much more confident but had also helped her to develop her views on critical contemporary issues.
“Before the program I was a bit uncertain about my relationship with Israel. I didn’t feel confident to put forward a Jewish viewpoint or stand up for Israel with all the negative press. And some close friends of mine speak about Israel negatively. But now I’m more educated about Judaism and about Israel and its history and that’s allowed me to put forward a more constructive argument with confidence and more substance and context whereas before I would keep any opinions to myself,” she said.
The program has also had a profound effect on Amanda Pyscheva, from Germany. She told the Deputy Mayor of Strasbourg that it had shown her the importance of personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential by working with others.
“To be surrounded by people who are willing to change something and who would like to grow with you is important and this forms a strong and connected community. This is the purpose we have to achieve with all the Jews around the world as our little nation wants to survive,” Amanda said. “I have understood that nothing in life can be reached alone. People around you are important and you should treat them accordingly because it is not just about taking in life but giving… so if we want to make the world a better place this is the first thing we need to internalise, and to love people and not things.”
Mr Tysman said the participants left Strasbourg enthused to make a greater impact on their own communities and noted ORT Strasbourg’s immense contribution to the seminar’s success.
“We are immensely grateful to Claude Sabbah and his staff at ORT Strasbourg for all their support in putting together such an ambitious program and for the warm hospitality that the group enjoyed from the moment they arrived,” he said.