In December 2007, Shira Woolf and Aylana Reiss Mandel, two Bar-Ilan University students and recent immigrants from New York and Toronto, were bored. A professor’s strike had left them with a lot of free time and not much for them or their English-speaking friends to do.
“There were weekly things, like Wednesday Night [English-language Torah] Class, an Ultimate Frisbee team, and BIAS [Bar-Ilan Acting Society], but it was all very small,” Mandel said, “and the English-speaking community was getting big.”
“If you weren’t involved in those groups, there was nothing. We just hung out in each other’s apartments and went to movies,” Woolf said. “So we thought: Why don’t we do something new? We went to the Student Union, and they said OK.”
The union, Mandel and Woolf explained, had never had a strong Anglo base, and the two were given relative autonomy in planning events, which ran the gamut from a Tu Bishvat seder to an Open Mic Night, to a trip to Ikea. They named the group Bar-Ilan ESC – an acronym for “English-Speaking Community” that is pronounced “escape.”
According to its founders, the purpose of ESC is to “give people who want to stay in Israel a college experience. ESC is like Hillel without the religious factor,” Woolf said. “We also tried to build a community in Givat Shmuel,” the town adjacent to the university, “because a lot of people stay here after they finish school.”
While ESC’s events are sponsored and partially funded by the Student Union, it provides resources beyond the union’s scope, such as planning orientation weekends for incoming Anglo students. Both Woolf and Mandel are involved in looking for an English-speaking rabbi for the mostly religious Bar-Ilan Anglo community.
The group also organized a rally in January protesting the rising price of having exams translated from Hebrew into English – which reached a high of NIS 400 this year. Nearly 50 Anglos and a few Israeli representatives of the Student Union held signs and chanted protest songs in front of Dean of Students Shmuel Shulman’s office. As a result, test translations currently cost NIS 270.
Fast-forward to April 2010. On a warm Monday night, the basketball courts on the Bar-Ilan campus were full of English-speaking students playing dodgeball. Nearby, Niki Ben-Yakov and Zemira Zahava Wolfe, the current heads of ESC, had set up a refreshments table.
“I love dodgeball,” said Elisha Kramer of New York on a break from the game. “This event reminds me of fifth grade. It helped me relieve stress. Maybe we could have a barbecue and game every two weeks.”
“As a new immigrant, I think it’s really hard to adjust,” Ben Yakov, who hails from Brooklyn, said. “Not only are you starting university, you’re also in a new country. You need a sense of community, people that you can relate to, to help you integrate.”
“The idea that there are people there for you if you have issues or questions helped me adjust better,” added Wolfe, who immigrated from Montreal.
Dovid Levine and Kovi Skier, first-year students who were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers nearby, agreed. “ESC offers a support system that new immigrants usually lack,” Levine explained. “The people I hang out with every day are the people I met on the first ESC weekend.”
“ESC evens out the playing field for new immigrants and gives them an opportunity to participate in campus life,” Skier said. His favorite event was Open Mic Night. “It was great; I didn’t realize the Anglo community [on campus] was so big until then.”
“Before Open Mic Night,” Levine interjected, “Kovi had only embarrassed himself in front of one-third of the English speakers.”
Skier has made himself a sort of campus troubadour in the months since his arrival, playing his guitar and singing at random times and places, often donning a sailor’s hat.
Daniel Gindis made aliya from New York with his family. He is in his fourth year at Bar-Ilan, and remembers the time before ESC. He called the group “the best thing to happen to us antisocial foreigners. It’s a manifestation of everyone’s desire to socialize and make friends. ESC also gives Canadians and Brits a chance to hang out with normal people,” he joked.
“And maybe this will help us all find our bashert [soulmate],” Gindis continued, “and escape the world of singleness.”
In fact, two Bar-Ilan students, Danny Wexler and Ayelet Koolyk, met at an ESC karaoke event and are now engaged.
Not everyone who attends ESC’s events is a native English speaker. The dodgeball event was sprinkled with Italians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Dutch, Belgian and other smaller immigrant groups.
Zvi Czermak, originally from Antwerp, said: “I met a lot of people who made me feel part of the group,” despite not being an Anglo. “I don’t think we need an ESC for Europeans. The French do things on their own, and Belgians are usually with Israelis,” he explained.
“The events are really fun,” Czermak added, “especially Open Mic Night. I plan on performing next time. ESC is great – chapeau for [hats off to] them!”
Not everyone is so happy with ESC. Anglos who grew up in Israel seem confused about the need for such a group, even as they attend their events.
“It’s weird being with all Americans,” said Deena Feifer, an Israeli born to American parents. “I don’t necessarily understand that need because I am actually an Israeli. I don’t get why it’s only for Americans,” she said. “You live in Israel, why do you feel the need to separate yourself as an American group?”
Despite this, Feifer attended the dodgeball-barbecue night. “Open Mic Night is always fun,” she admitted, “but I most certainly did not sing!” A lot of English-speaking Israelis are involved in ESC, she said.
Ben-Yakov explained the need for Anglo-only events: “It’s a cultural thing. If we would have a soccer event, people wouldn’t come, because culturally it’s not geared toward Americans. Israelis like different things than Americans do, like, Israelis didn’t come to the Super Bowl night we organized.”
She also pointed out that “you’re more comfortable with people that you’re used to,” and said ESC is “kind of like being at home. You’re in a different place, but with the same kind of people. You can relate to them, and they have common interests.”
It seems that the Student Union also does not understand the need for Anglo-exclusive activities. The organization sponsored a Hanukka party with a Eurovision theme for new immigrants in December 2009; students from different countries performed and competed for prizes. Although the event had a large turnout, there was a clear separation between the dominant groups – Francophone and Anglo – with a smattering of other countries bridging the gap.
Woolf and Mandel complained that the Student Union “doesn’t get it,” and has tried to limit ESC’s activities to the kind it is used to sponsoring. The two often found themselves planning events such as the popular annual orientation weekend without any help or input from the union.
“ESC is officially through the Student Union,” Mandel said, “but there’s no staff. We ran everything.”
Wolfe and Ben-Yakov have had similar experiences. The dodgeball event “got no money from the Student Union,” Wolfe said. “They’re not so forthcoming with us planning events. We run this with the students, without help from them.”
Ben-Yakov pointed out the union’s role in planning a trip to the Knesset and Western Wall for new olim, also that many Anglos attended the Eurovision event. She hopes the union will host ESC’s formal end-of-year banquet in their building.
“Without them, we wouldn’t exist,” she said, “even if they don’t always
coordinate so well with us.”
In response, a source at the Student Union said: “In the first semester
of this year, the Americans got whatever they wanted. For the opening
weekend, we offered to help them however we could, like using our
building or dishes. They got what they wanted.”
However, the source admits, “there are definitely money problems in the
Student Union. Recently, the budget for new immigrants – not just Anglos
– was completely cut, and we don’t have what to give. The immigrants’
department is in trouble, I can’t deny that.”
Despite the troubles, Ben-Yakov and Wolfe are still committed to helping
Anglos “make connections” and “start enjoying university more” – and it
seems to be working.