The World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) picture taken at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem Credit: Dana Levinson Steiner .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Avigayil Benstein is a “WUJS baby” – her parents met through a World Union of Jewish Students program in Arad in the 80s, and now some 40 years later, she has been voted president of the global student body.
A Hebrew University student of International Relations and Middle East studies, Benstein, 24, seeks to be “a facilitator of communication and positive, constructive dialogue that will bring people and Jewish communities closer together.”
As a sabra, born to an American father and a British mother, she believes that her mixed background gives her the necessary understanding and perspective to achieve that.
“I grew up in a religious community, and went to a pluralist, liberal, feminist orthodox high school,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. “I did sherut leumi (national service) and the army.” Benstein finished high school at the age of 16, and used the spare time she had before beginning her IDF service to do a year of voluntary national service at Yad Vashem. After that, she served as a foreign press liaison in the European desk of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
“I’m culturally Israeli and I speak English with an American accent,” she noted. “I have a better understanding of the Diaspora than most Israelis, and I can also communicate an Israeli perspective to Diaspora Jews. I fit, to some extent in both worlds, and I’m hoping that will help me bridge some of the gaps.”
Addressing a perceived disconnect between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, she opines that it is largely down to a lack of communication between the communities.
“And that’s something WUJS is perfectly positioned to address and change,” Benstein added.
The Jewish values she holds dear include “don’t judge a friend until you’ve been in their place” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
These values, she says, lend themselves to a pluralist worldview that most Jewish students around the world share. “I truly believe with all my heart in Jewish peoplehood. We’re a family, and families sometimes need to be brought closer together.”
Student leadership, she stressed, is crucial today and WUJS is the only democratically elected international Jewish student leadership in the world.
“We have the legitimacy to speak for Jewish students, advocate their causes, and coordinate activism campaigns on a global scale,” she explained.
“Student problems are relevant to the entire Jewish community,” Benstein said, highlighting antisemitism and BDS on campuses, the rise of right-wing extremism and neo-nazi sentiment, and religious pluralism in Israel, as key issues that affect Jews everywhere.
She added that these are issues the student leadership has decided to prioritize and address.
“Students have been at the forefront of every revolution in recent history, and we have the passion, the drive, and the influence to be the catalysts for real social change for the better,” Benstein emphasized.
The first thing on Benstein’s agenda is to establish a WUJS office in Jerusalem – due to financial constraints, they do not currently have their own official office space.
Once they have this, she intends to build low-cost/volunteer staff.
But she will need to increase fund-raising efforts to achieve her goals.
“My predecessor, Yos [Tarshish], did an incredible job getting WUJS off its feet and building momentum for the organization, but there’s still a very long way to go,” she said. “Our causes are really important, and because we’re a 93-year-old, grassroots, bottom-up, democratically elected student leadership, we have the influence and legitimacy to really work together and make true progress and social change. However, we’re still working to loosen our financial constraints, and every shekel helps.”