Miki Goldsmith, 22, is the only Jew in her University of Johannesburg law program. Nofar Weisel, 24, is among the Jewish majority at Ariel University. For Goldsmith, a member of the South African Union of Jewish Students, walking around her campus during Israel Apartheid Week can feel threatening. For Weisel, walking around her city during times of heightened terrorist activity can feel unsafe.
Both their similarities and their differences gave these young women a solid basis for intense one-on-one online conversations about Jewish identity, values, antisemitism, anti-Zionism and personal connection to Israel as part of the AACI Student Connect project started last September.
Goldsmith said she was delighted to learn of the matching program through Facebook.
“In 2017, I was on the Diller Teen Fellows leadership development program and learned so much from the Israelis around me, so I thought it would be amazing to learn more about how a person actually lives their life in Israel, especially now with the rise of antisemitism and anti-Zionism,” she said.
She and Weisel have talked about everything from the May 2021 civil unrest in mixed Arab and Jewish cities, to the South African government’s attempt to boycott the Miss Universe pageant in Eilat. In the process, they became friends.
“I am going to Israel soon and I want to meet up with her,” Goldsmith said. “On one of our video chats, she said, ‘You can come to me for Shabbos,’ and I know I’ve made a lifelong friend, which has been my biggest takeaway from this experience.”
David London, the CEO of AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel), said the goal of connecting Israeli and Diaspora young adults is near and dear to his heart.
“I was director of Young Judaea for four years before I made aliyah in 1991, and for three years after aliyah I ran USY Pilgrimage [to Israel]. So I have a vast background in youth work,” he said.
“And I know that although Birthright is an amazing program that generates a lot of enthusiasm and real emotions about Israel and Judaism that are very powerful and sometimes even lead to aliyah, after 10 wonderful days in Israel most students go back to university and they walk by that table on campus about BDS Day or Apartheid Month, and they slowly start losing their enthusiasm for Israel,” he said.
“With Student Connect, we are trying to humanize the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel through real human contact. It is very hard to link people together and that’s what we are doing – bringing Jewish university students together in a way that is beneficial to all sides,” he said.
For the Israeli students, the program not only helps them learn about Diaspora Jewry but also helps them practice their English for free with a native speaker, London pointed out.
“In our view, it is a win-win. The Jewish world is finally facing one of the major problems of the lack of communication between Israeli and Diaspora Jews,” he said, adding that leaders of Taglit-Birthright and other Jewish and Zionist organizations are “very positive” about the AACI program.
London emphasized that AACI Student Connect is intended to foster multilevel relationships. “We don’t care if they are left-wing, right-wing, religious or secular. If, later on, they want to deal with politics, that’s up to them.”
THE PROGRAM’S goals include the creation of the next generation of agents of change by encouraging participants to take a proactive role in their Jewish communities; giving participants tools and resources to define their position and strengthen their connection to Israel; encouraging students to talk about important Jewish topics; and building friendships.
Accordingly, AACI pairs students based on mutuality in their fields of study and personal interests.
Four sessions of one-on-one Zoom conversations are guided by a list of creative-dialogue prompts designed by an educational adviser. The slides encourage the pairs to explore real-world situations and provide their perspectives on focal topics.
Some of the suggested conversation starters: What are you looking forward to in the next five years? What do you want to be remembered for after you die? What do you think the Jewish people will look like in 50 years? What changes do you want to see in the world? Do you see yourself as an agent of change?
Like her sister-in-law Nofar, Aviva Weisel, 22, was paired with a South African student.
“In the beginning, it was a little awkward being on a Zoom call with a person you don’t know, but the conversation starters and tips we got from AACI led us through the basics of where we are with Judaism and our Jewish identity. And then it got deeper and we discussed our goals in life and how we can help the world,” Weisel said.
“I learned a lot about myself, because going through the questions, I was faced with things I never thought about before.”
Weisel, a recent graduate of Michlelet ORT Jerusalem, said she loves meeting new people and getting to know different cultures. She and her Student Connect partner are both studying architecture, so that gave them common ground.
“It was a great opportunity to talk to someone who had a completely different life experience, who doesn’t know that much about Israel and grew up in a place with a lot of antisemitism and struggles over Sabbath observance,” Weisel said.
“We had a lot of conversations about the differences between haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews here. In South Africa, they don’t have the same divisions.”
She and her partner intend to stay in touch. “It’s very important, especially for students, to take four hours total and build a lifelong friendship and learn about other people outside of yourself,” she said.
So far, eight pairs of Israeli students and Jewish students from English-speaking countries have completed the four sessions; currently another three pairs are in dialogue.
If they wish, the paired students may continue meeting or corresponding after the four required sessions. Taking the initiative to the next level, AACI has offered “alumni” the opportunity to attend virtual discussions with Prof. Gil Troy and with Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, as well as an in-person event with former ambassador Michael Oren.
Students may apply for AACI Student Connect by emailing [email protected]