As of next fall, students in America’s largest university system will once again have the opportunity to study abroad in Israel. Last month, the California State University (CSU) system reinstated its Israel study abroad program, nearly a decade after suspending it in 2002 due to safety concerns.

The Cal State system, with 23 campuses and 427,000 students, had acted in sync with the University of California (UC) system and many other US universities when it suspended Israel study programs after the US State Department issued a travel warning for Israel early in the last decade. But when UC reinstated the program in 2009, CSU did not follow suit, as had been expected.

“Many people thought the CSU system would reinstate their Israel program shortly after the UC system reinstated theirs,” said Yochai Shavit, the JAFI Israel fellow, San Francisco Hillel who works at San Francisco State University. “But CSU didn’t want to reinstate study abroad for countries on the travel warning list, and they didn’t make any exceptions for Israel.”

With support from a several national organizations, activists like Shavit on CSU campuses worked hard to propel the reinstatement.

“Throughout the last year, together with Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Israeli Consulate, JCRC and the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, we worked toward understanding the barriers toward reinstating the program and removing them,” Shavit said. “We also tried to get CSU to understand that there is a very good reason for creating an exception in the case of Israel, as they had previously done for Mexico.”

Other organizations that helped promote CSU’s reinstatement of the Israel study option include the Jewish Federations of Los Angeles and San Francisco and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Shavit credited these community groups for laboring tirelessly to mobilize the Jewish and CSU communities.

As the CSU SF Israel fellow, Shavit focused on gaining support on campus from students and faculty.

“We wanted to get the message from them up to the international programs office – go from the bottom up,” Shavit said. “We sent letters from faculty and students to the head of CSU and met with CSU study abroad professionals.”

Shavit was impressed with what he termed “CSU’s genuine concern for students’ safety and security, as well as the academic value of the study abroad program in Israel. It was clear that these were genuine concerns and it wasn’t a political situation in the CSU system.”

While it became clear last year that CSU intended to reinstate the program, efforts continued until the official announcement came on December 13 that the program would be reinstated for the 2012-13 academic year.

The decision – which initially allows study only at Haifa University – came too late for most students who might have wanted to study in Israel next year. While CSU extended the application deadline to January 15, Shavit said that did not leave enough time for students to make plans.

“Only a few students applied for 2012-2013,” he said. “That’s why the efforts that we will put toward study abroad are aimed toward promoting the program for the fall semester of 2013-2014.”

At CSU Long Beach, only two students applied for the 2012-13 program according to CSULB Hillel’s programming associate Phyllis Kenigsberg.

Nonetheless, she thinks that the reinstatement of an Israel study program has had a positive impact on the general student population.

“The reinstatement has put the idea of studying in Israel on students’ minds,” Kenigsberg said. “They were largely unaware of it before.”

A lack of awareness seems to be the biggest deterrent to Israel study programs, even outside of the CSU system.

At University of California, Riverside, Highlanders for Israel (HiFI) are hosting a week of Israel programming that promotes studying abroad in Israel.

“The only reason people would not study abroad is that they don’t know how or don’t know it is actually available,” UCR junior and HiFI vice president Danny Leserman said. “So we provide awareness about how easy and beneficial it is to study abroad in Israel.”

Guy Herschmann, a University of California, Santa Cruz senior and Northern California campus coordinator for StandWithUs, agreed that publicizing study abroad in Israel programs is a vital step in securing the success of such opportunities. He hopes that information sessions and cultural programming will help boost the number of California students who choose to spend a year abroad in Israel.

“By making Israel a more visible option for students, we hope that demand for these programs goes up,” Herschmann said. “Many students choose study abroad locations based on their familiarity.”

He said the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee (SCIAC) is working to “showcase the truly outstanding academic opportunities and highlight Israel’s complex and multicultural society,” two aspects that he and the SCIAC crew hope will convince more UCSC students to study in Israel.

“We hope that this translates into continued and increased support for UC study abroad programs in Israel,” he continud said.

Now that both major California public university systems have reinstated Israel study abroad programs, the challenge is to ensure that the programs succeed.

“Convincing both Jewish and non- Jewish students to study in Haifa is definitely a challenge to overcome, since people don’t really know anything about Haifa,” said Shavit.

He hopes that Haifa’s under-theradar qualities can be an advantage.

“We can brand it as whatever we want to brand it as,” he said. “We designed a program called ‘Hypeup Haifa’ to brand it as a cool and unique place to spend the year, kind of the San Francisco of the Middle East.”

The San Franciscans aren’t the only ones to market familiarity. At Cal State Long Beach, study abroad Israel promotion programming includes a beach-style get-together including food and music.

“We are highlighting the aspects of Haifa that students at CSULB can identify with and appreciate,” Kenigsberg said. “CSULB is nicknamed ‘The Beach,’ so we’re having a Haifa Pool Party and educating students about the beaches and water sports available in Haifa.”

Despite the effort being devoted to rebuilding the study in Israel program, Shavit acknowledged that it will take time for it to grow and said he is pleased with the level of interest.

“While all of our students are excited about the fact that the program in Israel is reinstated, the decision to live abroad for a year is not something that students take lightly,” he said. “We’re trying to be realistic in our expectations of how many students will end up going.”

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