BOSTON Their headquarters are wherever the college students they court can be found: coffee houses, dorm hallways, campus greens. They have no set office hours and are always up for a conversation, especially if the topic is Israel. In fact, that’s their job. Meet the ranks of a relatively new and growing cadre of Israel’s young emissaries whose mission is to engage with Jewish and non-Jewish students on North American college campuses on any and all things Israel with an eye out for what might be perceived as anti-Israel.
In old-school Hebrew, they would be known as shlihim, or emissaries, but in an effort to imbue their work with an American sensibility, the Jewish Agency of Israel, which sends them here in partnership with Hillel, calls them “Israel Fellows.”
“I’m not a salesperson selling Israel, but instead, I’m trying to give Israel a face. There are a lot of challenges, with such a wide spectrum of how people feel about Israel from total support to lots of questioning,” says Simona Vainberg, who recently finished her first semester at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I think a lot of the work of this job is about making a personal connection,” says Vainberg, 24, who immigrated to Israel as a young child from Khazakstan. “It’s about talking about all these things and showing all sides of the story.”
She describes Hopkins as a campus that is relatively non-political. Getting students to engage with Israeli topics, therefore, can take some doing. Like her counterparts, recruiting students to go on Birthright trips and accompanying them on their journey is a key part of her work. Often, it is the Birthright trip that becomes a key trigger for returning students to come back to campus as activists and leaders on Israel-related issues. Most return with more questions than answers, and that is also where the Israel Fellows step in, they say.
“It’s a great place to start from to explore Israel and Jewish identity,” says Tor Tsuk, 28, in her third and final year at Columbia University in New York City. “I have the ability to help them continue that relationship with Israel once they are back. I’m not expecting them to come back from their first trip to Israel and be the perfect Israel advocate.”
The returnees vary but some do become involved with Israel advocacy and community leadership on campus; others go in different directions. Some focus more on becoming involved with religious streams on campus, others are drawn to social justice issues as a way to explore their Jewish identity, and still others simply enjoy having a larger pool of Jewish friends.
For Josh Kahn, a fellow at the University of Florida, the Birthright alumni “are the ones who tell their friends they have to go.” “It really has been the fuel of the fire of engagement. It’s amazing at helping students who otherwise might not have opportunity or desire, to become a part of the conversation.” This year, the University of Florida is sending 200 students on Birthright trips. And as part of their work, the fellows also help students navigate other ways of spending time in Israel, including short- or long-term programs that can include internships or study. Kahn says it’s been helpful that their trips have been organized by a group that works to present a complex country: “It’s important that students leave not just with simple picture of Israel.”
The Israel Fellows program is something Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky has championed as an integral piece of his larger vision of bolstering Jewish identity among young Diaspora Jews. Since he became chairman in 2009, the number of Israel Fellows has increased from 19 to 56 on 70 North American campuses.
“Today, college campuses are one of the most important if not the most important arenas in which young Jews find themselves,” says Alan Hoffmann, director-general of the Jewish Agency. “It’s clear that the four years that a young person spends as an undergraduate on campus, and afterwards as a graduate student, are some of most critical years in terms of their identity development.
“Add to all this the issue of Israel and the fact that in the last two decades college campuses have become a hostile environment with regard to Israel. Also, young people often come to college ill-prepared, either in terms of their Israel and Jewish content background or because they might have grown up in a Jewish cocoon. Either way, they then find themselves in a hostile environment at college and often feel under siege,” says Hoffmann.
“Our Jewish Agency Israel Fellows are on campus to provide students an unmediated exposure to an Israeli peer an intelligent, thoughtful peer who can present to students (both Jewish and non-Jewish) an authentic Israel they can relate to and not the packaged version that so often turns people off.”
Fellows like Kahn, 28, say their job is not about sugarcoating Israel and the ongoing conflict. “I don’t see myself as a representative of the foreign minister who’s there to defend policy, but to help students, Jewish and non-Jewish, to engage, wrestle and have that part of the conversation crucial for the survival and flourishing of the Jewish people,” says Kahn. Israel Fellows say there is a problem co-hosting events with groups that they say seek to delegitimize Israel, but not with individuals or groups, including those from Israel, that ask hard questions. For example, Kahn says, a student who plans to join the Israeli army himself hosted a book club event to discuss a new book published by Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran Israeli combat soldiers who have served in the West Bank and Gaza and share their stories as soldiers there to stimulate critical debate within Israel. A Breaking the Silence activist spoke to Jewish students at a Sukkot event organized with the help of the program at Columbia.
Kahn himself was an American college student not long ago. His focus at the time was leading anti-Iraq war activity at his college in New Jersey and not the subject of Israel. But the 2003 suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv bar and the coverage of the incident in the media became a turning point for him. Soon after, he decided to immigrate to Israel where he studied and served in the army.
Eran Hoch, 25, is in his second year as an Israel Fellow in Orange County, California. His main focus is University of California-Irvine but he also works with students at other smaller nearby schools. When he arrived, the fourth Israel Fellow to work on the campus, he says people asked how he felt about going into a campus perceived as hostile to Israel. “You’re about to go into the lion’s den,” they warned. “And then I came here and see this strong, vibrant Jewish community waiting to do things, although not necessarily always political.” He says he works directly with the pro-Israel group on campus as well as another that deals primarily with Jewish and Israeli culture. “We don’t ignore the conflict, but we don’t focus solely on the conflict,” says Hoch. “Of course we can’t ignore it and don’t want to ignore it and I ask the students tough questions.”
Tsuk, who is at Columbia, says November’s cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas was a challenging time on campus with daily protests. But she says students she worked with were out there, “to be part of the conversation,” she says, trying to show the broader picture and context of the situation. “The one message is that no matter what, we have to be understanding of each other’s pain and have to talk and find a solution,” she says. Meanwhile, the Jewish identity train goes both ways. While in New York, Tsuk, who grew up on a kibbutz, has discovered Jewish pluralism and now finds herself seeking out synagogue services on Friday nights for the first time in her life. She says when she heads back to Israel next summer she will bring home her new Jewish identity and experience in its diversity beyond Orthodoxy.
“I feel like my eyes opened here and it’s super-important,” she says. “My shlihut (mission) does not end when I leave.”
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