Open table opens minds: A new approach to education

New lecture series targets students looking to learn aspects about Israel unrelated to political rhetoric.

September 1, 2012 16:48
3 minute read.
Keep it informal: Casual lecture series

Students Cartoon (370). (photo credit: By: Daniel Ackerman)


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Many students dream about classes in which they can learn at their own pace, learn facts without pressure and gain information without attending lectures. That may not happen in courses this fall, but a new approach to Israel education does just that: No lectures, memorization or tests required.

Armed with plenty of caffeine and, of course, free food, Israel advocates on campuses in Las Vegas and Washington, DC, offer an approach that provides relaxation and education to their fellow students. From coffee house setups to "fireside" chats, advocates are changing the face of Israel education on campus through open table discussions, and the model can be adapted to many other campuses.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) senior Ari Boris initiated the first open table discussion program on his campus last year. It began as a bimonthly meeting of students discussing Middle East politics and issues related to Israel in an open setting. With the help of a round table set-up and a diverse group of attendees, the event garnered increased attention as the year progressed.

Boris and other organizers sought to recruit students who were influential in the UNLV community, targeting the student body president and key club representatives. Boris enlisted other participants who already were involved in pro-Israel activity as well.

How to open the table on your campus: Students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and George Washington University offer these tips for bringing open discussions about Israel-related topics to your campus:

Discuss an informal setting: Meet at a local coffee shop, hookah bar or restaurant, or set up a classroom to resemble one of these locations. Students are more inclined to speak up and participate in a pressure-free environment.

Know your target audience: Whether you are recruiting students with a pro-Israel background or students with no prior knowledge on the subjects being addressed, know your audience.

Create personal relationships: Recruit people face-to-face. Approaching students on an individual basis is a great way to create lasting relationships and guarantee their attendance at future events.

Facilitate: Designate an individual to defuse any unwanted tension during the discussion. Healthy debate should be welcomed, but conflict is always best avoided.

Narrow your discussion: Send out a survey, email or Facebook message asking people what subjects they would like to discuss. Students will respond positively if they are addressing subjects of their choosing.

“I tried to recruit people who were knowledgeable about the questions to keep the conversation flowing,” he explained.

Students received weekly news clips in order to help them keep up to date on significant events occurring between meetings, and participants helped shape each discussion based on key issues in the news.

The program will continue to expand this year. “Video clips will be shown at the beginning of each meeting as a means of engagement,” Boris said. Recruitment efforts will continue in order to reach the UNLV student body at large.

Rather than targeting a narrow audience comprised solely of established Israel advocates, the program offers a broader spectrum of recruitment possibilities. Michael Fishman, a senior who participated last year and plans to continue said, “I wouldn’t say this event was so much pro-Israel as much as it is pro-information.”

Across the country, at George Washington University in Washington, DC, senior Emily Seckel, a member of Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI) plans to reintroduce a similar program titled Fireside Chats. But there’s a twist: The program expressly steers away from political and current events discussions.

“Fireside Chats is an informal discussion where you can talk about Israel from any perspective,” Seckel explained. Each meeting focuses on Israel from a cultural and societal point of view, discussing everything from music to gay rights and beyond.

“I hope to lean away from politics because I think there is so much more to Israel,” she continued. The series will target pro-Israel students looking to learn about aspects of the country unrelated to political rhetoric. Once the pro-Israel community is informed, Seckel hopes to continue expanding the scope of the meetings.

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