Creating campus Maccabees

Israeli-American students meet in LA for the inaugural Mishelanu National Conference aimed at strengthening identity.

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February 2, 2015 01:23
4 minute read.
STUDENTS AT the Israeli-American Council’s Mishelanu National Conference in Los Angeles

STUDENTS AT the Israeli-American Council’s Mishelanu National Conference in Los Angeles enjoy Israeli snacks Bamba and Bisli on Saturday. (photo credit: RANI SIKOLSKY/IAC)

LOS ANGELES – One-hundred-and-fifty American-Israeli college students from 10 US states and Canada met this weekend in Los Angeles for the inaugural Israeli-American Council’s Mishelanu National Conference.

It was an opportunity for the students to strengthen their Israeli-American identity and their connection to Israel. All the students have either one or both parents who are Israeli, all speak Hebrew at home and many were born in the United States or came to the US from Israel as children or teenagers.

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Mishelanu was established in 2011 in the California living room of David (Dadi) and Haya Perlmutter. David serves as co-chairman alongside his wife, but is probably best known in his role of executive vice president and general manager of Intel. Mishelanu came under the umbrella of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) – chaired by Israeli businessman Shawn Evenhaim – in 2012. Today, Mishelanu is active across 33 campuses in the US and Canada and boasts 370 members.

Speaking to the students at the opening session, Perlmutter said that through Mishelanu, “we are connecting second-generation Israelis to their Jewish and Israeli roots.”

He said unlike other Jewish groups on college campuses, Mishelanu has no political agenda and there is no push to make aliya.

“Mishelanu makes only one request: that you define yourself as part of the Jewish people and you have a strong connection to the existence of the State of Israel. This organization is about the core of what it is to be a Jew, an Israeli and an Israeli-American.”

Mishelanu director Nathalie Landsmen told The Jerusalem Post that Mishelanu was born out of an unmet need. “It’s almost the last chance to catch Israeli-Americans [on college campuses] when they’re starting to define themselves and to have them involved in the Jewish community.”

She noted that many Mishelanu students do not feel comfortable joining Hillel on campuses, because the majority of Israeli- American students are secular and they feel that Hillel is “too religious.” But, she added, thanks to the IAC, Hillel is now a partner with Mishelanu.

As promised, the opening night’s panels went straight to the heart of the unique makeup of Mishelanu’s students. IAC CEO Sagi Balasha said that what sets Israeli immigrants apart from other large immigrant groups is the mindset.

“Mexicans, Indians, Chinese come here and want to stay forever,” he explained, before asking how many of the students’ parents said, when they moved to the US, that they planned on staying only a few years. Almost everybody in the room raised their hands.

The student response, Balasha said, is reflective of a survey that the IAC undertook, revealing that 57 percent of Israelis who moved to America planned at “some point” on returning, even if they never did.

The revelation brought up a conversation with the students about how many of the second generation take on the guilt of their parents who don’t return to Israel.

Ohio student Michal Adar, who moved to America with her parents when she was 16, said the transition was very hard. But now that she’s due to graduate, she loves living here, even though part of her wants to go to Israel.

“My dad keeps telling me to live in Israel,” she said, “but do my parents have the right to tell me where to live, especially when they brought me here?” Haya Perlmutter quipped, “We [parents] have the right to tell you what to do, and you have the right to not listen to us. But of course we know best.”

However, Ilan Sinelnikov told the Post he intends to return to Israel as soon as possible after he graduates college. Sinelnikov moved to Minnesota from Rehovot in 2008 when his father was offered a job there. A business and marketing senior at the University of Minnesota, Sinelnikov established the Students Supporting Israel organization in his freshman year. Today, the group boasts 30 chapters across college campuses in the US and Canada.

SSI creates a united pro-Israel front on college campuses, particularly in the face of the virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.

“I’m going to make sure that SSI is doing well and can stand on its own without me, and then I’m going to go back to Israel,” he said.

And while there were plenty of informative sessions in English and Hebrew on everything from storytelling and discussing Tel Aviv as Israel’s melting pot, to mixers and musical performances, combating the demonization of Israel on campus was a major theme throughout the conference.

Philanthropist Sheldon Adelson said it was important for the students to come together to fight BDS initiatives and to take on organizations like J Street, the Muslim Students Association and the Students for Justice in Palestine.

“We have a new title for you,” Adelson said. “The Campus Maccabees. The Maccabees saved the Jewish people before, and you can save us now.”

Israel Consul-General in Los Angeles David Siegel also told the students at the closing session that their success in building relationships and correcting preconceived notions about Israel on campus “is important to the future of the great friendship between Israel and the United States.

“Developing a network such as the one through the IAC Mishelanu program will empower the growing Israeli-American community with the ability to capably deal with tomorrow’s challenges.”


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