Some students cut short from speaking on controversial bills. Here’s what they would have said.


Alissa Barnholtz, Clara Bess and Neon Liebson conferring with State Senator Andrew Koenig. Photo by Cheryl Adelstein


It’s wonderful when your worlds come together, as mine have recently.  I am filled with both pride and hope for the future, knowing I am part of two organizations, Jewish Community Relations Council ( JCRC) and Cultural Leadership, that prepare our young adults to be future leaders.

I have the great joy of serving as the deputy director of the JCRC, where we work to mobilize the Jewish community to build a vibrant and secure Jewish community in a thriving and just St. Louis region. JCRC builds bridges among interfaith organizations across our region and fights antisemitism, in part through our award-winning Student to Student program, which is a part of the Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the JCRC. This program brings Jewish teens to area high schools where there are little to no Jewish students to teach them about Judaism and their Jewish lives.

I also have the great privilege to dedicate some of my volunteer time to Cultural Leadership, a program that prepares the next generation of Jewish and African American teenagers and allies to stand up, speak out and take action against injustice. I was a past board chair and currently serve as the co-chair of the advisory committee.

Last week, I visited Jefferson City twice to provide testimony against several bills that could significantly limit what is taught in classrooms regarding race, racism, and responsibility for the racisms and other misdeeds of the past (basically rooted in white supremacy) and penalize teachers and school districts for violating these draconian new rules. In addition to testifying, I brought six people with me who shared effective and compelling testimony.

My guests included five alumni of the Cultural Leadership program, three of whom are also part of JCRC’s Student to Student program. They brought a variety of perspectives and identities: Jewish, multi-racial, LGBT, white. Most compelling, they represented those who would be most impacted by restricting curriculum and classroom conversations. The senators needed to hear these voices.

Students Sela Masaki and Ella Nichols provided compelling testimony to the Missouri Senate and Workforce Development Committee on Jan. 18.

“History is hard. But we talk about it nonetheless. Why? Because we stand on the shoulders of historical giants, those who made it possible for us to be here today,” said Sela, a Ladue Horton Watkins High School senior, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, a Student to Student group leader and the granddaughter of a Japanese American who fought in World War II.

“We need to talk about all of history’s nuances, its complexities. We cannot stand on one shoulder and half of another. We must stand on all of them, together.”

Ella, a senior from University City High, testified, “There is always going to be some degree of discomfort when it comes to learning history because history is an uncomfortable topic. When we talk about restricting the curriculum of history classes, we are trying to make students feel more comfortable. However, in the process we are further marginalizing groups of students that already feel invisible in the classroom.”

Although only a week apart, the next group of students who visited our senators had a very different experience. Alissa Barnholtz, Clara Bess and Neon Liebson woke at 4 a.m. to travel with me to Jefferson City for an 8 a.m. hearing on a similar bill before the same Senate committee. The students were passionate and prepared. Unfortunately, the hearing was cut short by the chairman and the students and many other advocates were not given the opportunity to speak.

Had they spoken, here is a bit of what they would have added to the conversation.

Alissa, a junior at Parkway Central, member of Shaare Emeth and a Student to Student leader, wrote, “Participating in uncomfortable conversations is where real understanding happens. We can’t support each other if we don’t understand each other. And we can’t understand each other when we are limited to one perspective.”

Clara, a Lafayette High School sophomore and member of United Hebrew Congregation, wrote, “Talking about history does not assign blame to white students, it gives all students the context necessary to assume a responsibility, as citizens of the United States, to make sure that these mistakes don’t repeat themselves.”

Neon, a junior at Crossroads College Prep, a member of Central Reform Congregation and a Student to Student leader, planned to share, “I am a trans Jewish person and I’m here today to answer any questions about trans people you might have because I believe in education and active listening.”

Neon planned to testify on a portion of the bill that would restrict trans students from playing sports. “As trans youth we are often discouraged or banned from playing sports with our cisgender peers. Trans kids are kids, and we should be allowed to participate in activities and given equal opportunities as our authentic selves,” Neon wrote.

Disappointed that they were unable to speak, the students showed great resilience, talking directly to committee chairman Senator Andrew Koenig after the hearing to share their passionate views. And their impact was amplified, as they were quoted extensively in an article about the hearing in the Missouri Independent.

Having my worlds overlap gave me great pride in the work the JCRC and Cultural Leadership do to prepare our young people to be the change-makers of the next generation. As my rabbi, Susan Talve, taught me, one of the most important things you can do is show up. It is an honor for me to represent the Jewish community in showing up in Jefferson City and a greater honor to bring passionate advocates with me to share their stories.