Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in the north Chicago suburb of Deerfield is small—165 students, total—but mighty, at least in Model UN circles. For the third straight year, it captured the national Model UN title, this time representing Iran. It was probably the first time Iran had ever been represented by so many people in kippot. And for the Zell team, it was a learning experience.
“A lot of kids that go to our high school have gone up through the Jewish day school route,” said the team co-president, Felix Rosen. “We’ve lived in a Jewish bubble. And then we were being asked to understand and embody a different culture.”
Zell has 28 students on its Model UN team, making it one of the largest in the national competition in which 2,000 students represent 23 countries. The organizers make country assignments based on size. Iran has a large delegation. So Zell, the only Jewish school, was Iran. Previously it had represented Germany, France, and Saudi Arabia.
The students traveled to New York for the Model UN competition, which took place last week, from March 15 to March 18. But they have spent the past six months studying up on Iran’s perspective on various subjects and writing position papers, guided by Rosen and his co-president Zev Mishell. At the Model UN conference, they spend three days meeting in councils and committees with representatives from other countries to solve international crises. Judges award points to participants for making the most valuable contributions to the discussion.
Lexi Levin was part of the committee to discuss brain drain. “In Iran, the lack of jobs is pushing people to leave,” she explained. “As a representative of Iran, I would never admit people were leaving because of human rights abuses. Instead I talked about the sanctions from the international community. As an American, I believe in them, but as Iran, I was saying, ‘America’s the worst, no one should be sanctioning us.’ It’s an interesting place to be in.”
During their time in New York, the Zell students got to meet with the real Iran UN delegation at the Iranian consulate. They were concerned that their religious observance would be an issue, but they learned that 20,000 Jews live in Iran, including one member of the Iranian parliament. They also learned that Iran is a more modern and liberal country than it’s been portrayed in the American press.
On the final day of the conference, the top Model UN participants, including 16 Zell students, spoke at the real UN. “It was an incredible experience, standing where so many great speakers had been,” said Mishell, “where Zionism was marked as racism. I got to echo my own voice within that.”
At the end of the conference, in what has now become an annual tradition, the students took a victory march through Manhattan singing “Am Yisrael Chai” and other Jewish songs. Back at school, their classmates toasted them with kosher grape juice in plastic champagne flutes.
Advisor Dale Griffith said he’s very proud of the students. After the visit to the Iranian consulate, he shook hands with the diplomats. “I said, ‘These students are so sincere about wanting to take their place in the world and make it a better place.’ And the diplomats said, ‘It will be.’”
Aimee Levitt reports regularly on Chicagoland for the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @aimeelevitt