Masha Merkulova

(Article by Harvey Farr – Jewish Journal – Wednesday, November 17th, 2021)

Nine years ago, on a typical weekday afternoon, Masha Merkulova’s son came home from Hebrew school clearly troubled.

“I asked him what was wrong,” Merkulova, a registered nurse, said. “He then told me the teacher at his Hebrew school showed the class a movie that was anti-Israel. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately got a copy, watched it and was shocked at what I saw.”

Merkulova, who was born in Russia, said that while Russia was great at raising “social warriors,” that never extended to Zionism or Israel.

“When I emigrated to the United States, I knew I needed to educate myself more about Israel and especially Zionism,” she said. “So I did.”

The incident at her son’s Hebrew school in the California Bay Area where she lives prompted Merkulova to ask the school for an explanation.

“I found the teachers were well-meaning but uneducated about Israel and Zionism. They simply didn’t know the movie they were showing was inaccurate and out of context,” she said. “I then found a study guide on Israel that was fair and factual that the teachers could follow. But the school told me it would take one to two years for the board to approve it. We didn’t have a year or two, so I bought the program myself and started teaching it at a space donated by the local JCC.”

Her informal teaching led her to give workshops and seminars and eventually to creating Club Z, a nonprofit to “raise modern-day Zionists who are articulate and knowledgeable leaders,” according to the organization’s website. In 2017, she left nursing entirely to focus on growing Club Z.

Headquartered in the Bay Area with satellite offices in Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York and San Diego, Club Z (the Z is for Zionism) provides teens with the tools they need to defend Zionism on high school and college campuses — which they are finding to be increasingly anti-Israel. These tools are provided via seminars, an institute, conferences and activism such as pro-Israel rallies that Club Z organizes and participates in.

Club Z members were among 170 California high school students and parents who sent a petition to Gov. Gavin Newsom. They urged him to veto AB 101 requiring ethnic studies courses for high school graduation. The petition stated in part: “This bill will sanction the hounding of Zionist students in high schools across the state…Zionism is integral to our Jewish identity and we are alarmed that this bill will institutionalize anti-Zionism, a dangerous form of antisemitism. We strongly urge you to veto AB 101.” Newsom ended up signing the bill into law on October 8, 2021.

“SUPPORTING AND LOVING ISRAEL IS GREAT, AND THAT IS ONE OF OUR PRINCIPLES, BUT IT IS NOT ENOUGH”

— MASHA MERKULOVA

“Supporting and loving Israel is great, and that is one of our principles, but it is not enough,” Merkulova said. “Jewish students need facts and information to refute the misinformation that is taught about Israel on campus. Too often, fellow students just don’t know any better. They accept what they are told and never hear Israel’s side.”

While Merkulova is fully engaged in the mission of educating the next generation of pro-Israel teens, she admitted she misses nursing. “With nursing, there is instant gratification,” she said. “It’s actually a much easier job. You see results immediately when patients get better. Educating teens to stand up for Israel is a long-term challenge, but ultimately it is a battle well worth fighting.”

Local Club Z members speak:

Jennifer Karlan
Age: 18
College: Harvard University

“Club Z has fundamentally changed my view of what it means to be a Jew. In Club Z learning sessions, I have learned that being a Jew inherently means we are part of the Jewish people — Am Israel — and like all peoples, we originate from a land. That land is called Israel, and thus, we are an indigenous people to the land of Israel.

“I have learned nuances of Jewish and Israel history, including the legal, moral and historic rights to the land, and the rebirth of the state. Yet most revolutionizing was understanding the six historical accusations Jew-haters make against the Jews and how they shift throughout history, and seeing how blatantly antisemites use those accusations against Israel today.”

Jennifer Karlan

Natalie Arbatman
Age: 17
High School: Mountain View High School

“Personally, I have felt afraid to express my Zionism and by extension my Judaism. Living in an extremely progressive area where most of my classmates are affected by the massive misinformation that they read online, where Zionists are labeled as racists. During the recent Gaza war, an overwhelming majority of my classmates posted ‘Free Palestine’ and other anti-Zionist slogans and infographics. Many of them vilified Zionists and said they would unfriend any person who wasn’t anti-Israel.

“I in no way felt comfortable sharing my views or defending Israel for fear of being a pariah, but Club Z instilled in me a pride that trumped those emotions and I did engage with several of my peers online. The classic antisemitism that my parents experienced is not as common in America, but it has seeped into the so-called activism of well-intentioned progressive students at my school.”

Natalie Arbatman

Shaya Keyvanfar
Age: 16
High School: Palisades Charter High School

“Joining Club Z was one of the most life-changing decisions I made as a student. I decided to become proactive instead of reactive: to arm myself with as much knowledge as I possibly can on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zionism and antisemitism. I have been part of the organization for a year now and in this short time, I have gained crucial knowledge regarding the state of Israel, partition plans and history, which I have implemented either in the classroom or through talking with my peers or fighting back on social media.

“I remember my first day of Club Z institute: my peers and I had a discussion about the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine and the formation of Jordan, and I was so blown away by the information I learned, that I immediately lectured both my parents and proceeded to FaceTime my friends to share my new knowledge as soon as I got home. For me, this is what Club Z is about: using facts and knowledge for a good cause.”

Shaya Keyvanfar