The Jerusalem Post news editor is on a trip to the United States to cover the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Los Angeles. Last week I wrote about some of the gimmicks Hillel leaders were using to attract Jewish students on US campuses to Judaism and Israel. I focused on skydiving with an Israeli flag, something I found to be rather wasteful, considering the level of political activism displayed by anti-Israeli groups on some campuses.
Skydiving for Israel, Part 1
Despite wide agreement from many people involved in the campus activism issue, I think that blog entry insulted some people and frustrated others, who said I had taken just one activity of many that Hillel carries out and used that to make the extrapolation that Hillel campus organizations were perhaps not serious enough to connect Jewish students to others like them, and to Israel. Point well taken, I decided to see what else Hillel Houses were up to on US campuses. I spoke with the man sent by Israel to coordinate Hillel activities in the US, Ilan Wagner.
Wagner, 44, made aliya when he was 24, is now the Jewish Agency's shaliach to the Hillel organization in America. "I was sent to strengthen the Hillel - Israel link," he says, in perfect Hebrew.
Wagner cooperates with World Hillel in three spheres:
1. Project manager for the "Israel Fellows" program, which sees the Jewish Agency sending young shlichim from Israel to US campuses for a year or two to cooperate with local Hillel groups. There are currently 22 "Israel Fellows" in 40 US campuses.
2. Promotes the MASA program. "A young person who goes on a trip to Israel for a year comes back a different person, and a different Jews. He becomes a shaliach in his own right," says Wagner.
3. Manages all the Israel-related and Israel-Palestine public diplomacy "education" for Hillels. Wagner writes the material for how to deal with and talk about the conflict, what he calls "from processing to action".
Something I have learned recently while researching the Hillel issue: Many US Jewish students love Israel, but they're not so gung-ho about the Israeli government's policies regarding the occupation of the West Bank, the checkpoints, killing of civilians, etc. In short, the entire range of views about Israel can be found amongst Jewish students on American campuses. "We try and help students process things that are hard to see, like the human suffering in Lebanon, the destruction of civilian infrastructure by the IDF. We tell the students that it's ok not to agree with Israeli policy, but that doesn't mean that your basic relationship with Israel changes. Your basic relationship with Israel doesn't have to be dependent on this or that policy. We introduce elements of reflection, and tell them you don't have to be 'Ra Ra' to be for Israel," Wagner says.
This is all very one-dimensional traffic, and I find it hard to believe that Hillel's 'educational material' alone will provide students with the right context of the situation on the ground. There is so much information from so many different sources. Hillel is just one source. Within the Internet, a Jewish student can talk to 10 different people in Jenin, Gaza, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Kiryat Arba, New York and Sydney. And I'm not even talking about TV, newspapers and radio - which young people are tuning to less and less. Does Hillel take that into account?
Wagner: "Once the students have been exposed to the context of the conflict, we move onto action. We tell them they can do something to be more committed to Israel, things like philanthropy, advocacy, volunteering, correspondences, and yes, skydiving. We want them to develop real friendships with Israelis."
So how did the skydiving with an Israeli flag idea start? What was that about?
Wagner: "Actually the idea for skydiving came from some of the students themselves, not from the shaliach (Amir apologizes to the Hillel shaliach mentioned in the previous blog). New York campuses are different than many places in the country, there are so many things competing for the attention of the students there. The idea started when somebody there talked about sending aid packages for the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. And somebody else said, "Hey why don't we go parachuting too?"
Cool idea, but is it effective?
Wagner: "You wouldn't believe it, but contrary to popular belief, most US campuses are pro-Israel. Anti-Israeli student activity on American campuses is not our main problem, like it is on European campuses. The amount of money and organization that goes into Jewish activity on campuses is larger than that for Arab groups [Although the Saudis are buying chairs in Middle East Studies departments all over the US - A.M.]. Jewish organization on campuses is more sophisticated than that of the pro-Arab groups. Many instances of pro-Palestinian students trying to stir things up have been grossly unsuccessful. The strategy of the Jewish community has been not to fall into the provocations of the Palestinians but to show the positive side of Israeli culture."
You mean, we're winning on US campuses?
Wagner: "Look, Palestine Solidarity Movement [PSM] rallies have basically petered out. Instead of fighting those rallies with Hillel counter-rallies, what we, and our partners in the Israel On Campus Coalition, decided to do is to know in advance what, when and where the PSM were planning to do, and precede that with a week of full of Israel-related events focusing on culture, values, technology, and things like that. So when the Palestinian day on campus comes, there is no need to rebuff it."
According to numbers by the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities [UJC], about 70 percent of young Jewish adults in America have never been to Israel, and may never go. 44% of Jewish students have only one Jewish parent. This is a huge disconnect from Israel, how do you deal with it?
Wagner: "Culture is critical. You need to find what is important to students and show them that Israel is relevant to them. This December, we are bringing 85 American Jewish students, half undergrads and half grad students, to Israel for 9 days on an environmentalism field trip. These students are environmental activists or are studying environmental issues. Last year we brought technology students to Israel."
Last month's "Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today" study, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, found that only about a third of American Jewish young adults see caring about Israel as important to their Jewish identities.
Among the study's findings was the "consensus among several studies that Israel is not central to young people's Jewish identity." In 2000, only 33 percent of New York Jews aged 22 to 52 indicated that "supporting Israel" was related "a lot" to "what being Jewish meant for them." Supporting Israel was ranked eleventh in significance on a list of fifteen values.
Since most Jewish students on most US campuses are not connected to Hillel, Israel, or any stream or synagogue, the biggest issue for Wagner, and other Jewish activists on campuses is apathy, and competition for 'souls'. The marketplace of ideas competing for the attentions of students is fast and furious, and Hillel leaders have their work cut out for them. And if it takes skydiving with an Israeli flag to get their attention, so be it.
* * *
Stars talk investment, not charity, at GA
Good for the non-Jews too
Do Jews have a future in America?
Skydiving for Israel
The Jews of DC
My first face-to-face with organized American Jewry
Sunday evening in Chicago