Elli Friedman spent her childhood and early teen years thinking she loved Israel.
But that love, the 17-year-old now realizes, came about because that was what she was always taught she should feel.
It didn’t come from the tangible connection that’s held her in its grasp for nearly a year, making the Maury High School senior fill an already slam-packed schedule with pro-Israel programming and resources— and love—that she plans and procures and offers to her peers so they might, too, feel a connection to the Jewish homeland.
Elli’s “love connection” got its start with a deep-rooted relationship with Judaism. The daughter of respected Jewish educator Linda Peck and Birdland Records owner Barry Friedman, Elli attended the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater for nine years, adored going to Sunday School and confirmation class at Congregation Beth El, and became active in BBYO.
Her revelation about Israel—and connecting to the country on a deeply personal level—came last April when she went abroad to study, attending the eight-week Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Life and school in Israel made an impact on Elli that would change her life, immediately and definitively.
“Being there really allowed me to form my own opinions,” says Elli. “We got to see and learn things at the same time, and not just from textbooks. Like we did a mountain hike, went to the desert, and to a beach, all on the same day.
“I got to see Israel’s diversity and its beauty, and it opened my eyes to what a great place it is,” Elli says. “I like the diversity there—the people and the land. It really feels like home to me.”
When Elli returned to Virginia after attending AMHSI, she found out that her name had been submitted for a relatively new program: the StandWithUs MZ Teens Internship. Elli pursued the opportunity to be a part of the international, nonprofit organization that supports Israel, and was one of 50 United States high school students chosen for the Internship—from among hundreds of applicants.
The StandWithUs MZ Teens Internship is a leadership program that prepares students for the challenges they may face within their communities and at college. Elli and the other participants began the year-long commitment with an all-expenses paid trip to a conference in Los Angeles, where she learned even more about Israel, how to be an advocate for the country, and began to think of positive campaigns that would inspire her peers and educate Tidewater Jewish teens about Israel.
“My goal is to get kids my age involved, and help them find a connection to Israel,” Elli says. “I want them to find their voice to advocate and to love, not just because its “Israel,” but for their own reasons and by finding their own connections.”
In addition to working closely with BBYO and being part of its leadership, Elli—with support from StandWithUs— has built a strong relationship with the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, and its director Robin Mancoll. Together, they are bringing pro-Israeli programs and speakers to Maury High School and to Jewish teens in the community.
Even if her peers don’t have a connection with Israel yet, Elli thinks they should attend the special programs in Tidewater.
“My eyes have been opened and what I’ve found is that Israel is a bigger part of my Jewish identity than I ever thought it would be,” she says. “It feels like I’ve got two homes—one in America. And one, in Israel.”
by Laine Mednick Rutherford