Changing campus culture

A group of Jewish and African American college students decide to come to Israel to help deepen black and Jewish relations back on campus.

Brandeis Bridges  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Brandeis Bridges
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For most Jewish North American college stu- dents interested in spending some time in Israel there is a plethora of organized pro- gramming options available. These trips tend to focus on providing these young adults with the means of exploring their ancient heritage through a variety of wide-ranging tours and educa- tional experiences throughout the country.
However, this spring one diverse group of college stu- dents from Brandeis University plans on visiting Israel on a 10-day mission, and then using the experience not as an “end” but as a “means” towards creating a new cul- ture back on campus that centers on bridging the gaps between different peoples, passions, and ideas.
Known as “Brandeis Bridges,” a group of 10 Jewish and African American college students are set to arrive on what they are calling “an intercultural pilgrimage to Israel” this May, focusing less on tourist sites but more on specific points of interest between the two communities.
The planned trip, initiated by the students themselves, is a joint collaboration between the school’s Martin Luther King (MLK) and Friends diversity club, the school’s Black Student Organization (BBSO), as well as the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee (BIPAC).
According to 21-year-old senior Amanda Dryer, a Jewish student, and the President of the MLK and Friends Club who initiated the “Brandeis Bridges” pro- gram, “there is a wide gap between the black and Jew- ish students on campus. But a trip to Israel,” she believes, “will provide an intersection of stories rele- vant to both the black and Jewish communities which can bring us together.”
Dryer says that at Brandeis, where around 50% of the 3,000 member undergraduate student body is Jewish and thus the campus has a strong Zionist culture, she feels that non-Jews on campus tend to shy away and are intimidated by their lack of knowledge about Israel.
“The main goal of the trip,” she says, “is to bring the black and Jewish communities together. We hope to expose them [the black students] to Israel, not in order to make them Zionists, but so that they can come to their own realizations and conclusions, and understand our school’s storied Zionistic past. We’re hoping,” Dryer says, “that this will also lead to more dialogue on Israel in the black students’ home communities as well.”
Dryer, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who says she believes that “the media gives Israel a bad rap and is hooked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” hopes to expose her fellow students to the good sides of Israel.
She feels that both groups can learn from the Israeli nar- rative “of triumph and the ability to overcome.”
Another of the trip organizers is 19-year-old sopho- more Ryan Yuffe, who is the co-president of BIPAC. He says that before the creation of Brandeis Bridges, which involves both groups meeting regularly leading up to the Israel trip, “I never really had personal relationships with blacks on campus. This made me realize that overall there is a segregation of cultures and a detachment of peoples and ideas.”
Yuffe says that BIPAC “sees Israel as a catalyst for the types of discussions we want to have.” He adds that “Israel is a place where both of our identities [Jews and blacks] can combine in positive ways. On the trip, we are going to be focusing on issues including civil rights, immigration and absorption, and the role of the Ethiopi- an black community. We want to take the successes and even the failures in Israel in terms of how people inte- grate with each other and use those as case studies in order to bridge the gaps between our own communities.”
He adds, “While the Israeli Arab conflict might serve as a case study for us, and we’re not shying away from that, our primary focus is rather on Israeli society and Jewish identity and how Israel can serve as a catalyst in educat- ing both communities about each other.”
Yuffe says that in the future the group hopes to take trips to either the Deep South in the US or perhaps to parts of Africa to create further bonds, but next time by using the black students’ historical perspective.
Malika Imhotep, a 19-year-old sophomore and the cur- rent BBSO president, is also looking forward to taking part in the “Bridges” Israel trip. She believes that black and Jewish relations on campus “are embarrassingly stag- nant.” She adds, “We are just two groups passively exist- ing with each other.”
Imhotep says that Brandeis “is in an environment saturated with Birthright trips that often leave minori- ty students feeling left out.” She hopes that the Israel trip followed by another intercultural pilgrimage to Ghana, West Africa will do the same thing, bridge gaps, in a black context.
Imhotep says that the goals of the upcoming Israel trip are “to create an environment for black and Jewish stu- dents to engage in open and honest discussion about our differences and similarities and to hopefully add some more life and equality to our on-campus relations.”
She says that the participants will be hosting a press conference and publishing a collection of jour- nals written throughout the duration of the trip upon their return.
D’Andre Young, a 19-year-old sophomore who serves as the BBSO treasurer and is very involved in the MLK and Friends group, will also be taking the trip. He says that only since his arrival on campus did he learn about prominent members of the Jewish community marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and calling for equal rights for the black community.
While he feels that the relationship between Jews and blacks on campus is not a bad one, he finds it dis- appointing that “two groups that have both encoun- tered a history of oppression, while different, are not truly connecting.”
Young is hopeful that the upcoming Israel experience is “only the start – as a place to go and understand Jew- ish perspectives and origins.” He is also hopeful that through the Bridges program, other trips will be taken to help connect the gaps.
To coordinate the logistics for this Israel-experience the group has turned to the Jerusalem-based “Jewish Journey” educational travel company to assist in designing its itinerary.
ACCORDING TO Taire Rubin-Shraga, the company’s director of marketing, it has been inspiring working with Yuffe to make this trip a reality. “We’re excited,” says Rubin-Shraga, “because we have never designed a trip of this sort before, which focuses on enhancing relations between the black and Jewish communities with Israel as the tool.”
While Rubin-Shraga admits that it has been challeng- ing designing the trip, which she says is a good thing, “it is amazing that young people themselves are bringing communities together, advocating for Israel, and seeing how we [Israel] are able to foster connections through innovation in this country.”
Arnon Katz, CEO and founder of the Jewish Journey adds, “The Jewish Journey is honored to be working on this initiative, which will broaden horizons and create a deeper understanding between diverse ethnic communities.”
Dryer is grateful for the support “Bridges” has received for launching the initiative from the local Boston-area Jewish community. She says that the main sponsor of the trip is the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston organization (Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation), along with other private donors.
Yuffe is confident that the group’s funders are mak- ing a wise investment. “This trip is meant to create 10 student leaders for change. We’ll see that leadership come this fall when the new semester starts via social events, articles, and programming on campus led by our participants. In other words, this isn’t just a 10- day trip to Israel; it’s a way to change campus culture all year round.”