Learn from a fellow

A joint effort between the Jewish Agency and Hillel seeks to help students establish a meaningful connection to Israel.

Pro-Israel students on US campus 521 (photo credit: Courtesy  JAFI)
Pro-Israel students on US campus 521
(photo credit: Courtesy JAFI)
When Eran Hoch introduces himself to university students at Orange County, California, campuses and says he is going to talk about life in Israel, the first thing he does is present a map.
Surprisingly the 25-year-old from Mazkeret Batya doesn’t take out a map of Israel, but one of Eastern Europe, where he explains that his ancestors lived before making aliya. Hoch says he uses his map as a prop to show that “no matter where in the world a Jew lives, whether in Los Angeles or in Givatayim, we are all one family.”
It is that message of a familial Jewish connection, with Israel as the main focus, that he and 55 other highly educated young professionals are spreading while serving as Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) fellows to Hillel – or shlihim (emissaries) – on 70 campuses throughout North America.
The program, launched in 2003 during the second intifada, is a joint effort between JAFI and the Hillel organization to aid students in establishing a meaningful connection to Israel, and to educate them on how to speak out for the Jewish state on campus.
According to Anat Yitzhaki, JAFI’s Tel Aviv-based Fellows to Hillel coordinator and a past emissary in the program herself, candidates are chosen following a thorough screening process, then strategically matched with an appropriate university in North America (the US or Canada) to serve for either one or two academic years, working as a full-time member of the Hillel staff.
Yitzhaki says that qualified candidates must have a university degree, experience working in formal or informal education, and excellent English communication skills.
Those accepted then undergo an intensive period of training under JAFI’s auspices in Israel, and arrive in North America in August before the start of the semester for further training under Hillel’s guidance.
Ronen Weiss, who serves as the director of the fellows program and, like Yitzhaki, was himself a fellow nearly a decade ago at several universities in northern California, says the most important role of the fellow is to “make personal connections to the students and enhance their connection to Israel, since Israel is a vital component of our Jewish identity.”
He says each fellow is “an educational resource who is able to bring their own stories from Israel to the students on campus.”
For example, he continues, “last year one of our fellows was from Sderot, and he was able to share his experiences with the students in a way in which they could then relate to what it’s like living there under fire.”
Weiss adds that while the fellow often works in coordination with a variety of other Israel educational and advocacy groups on campus, this program is distinctive in that “we are actually sending Israelis to campuses who are trained professionals working full-time jobs for Hillel and are not just student interns.”
ACCORDING TO Yitzhaki, the fellow’s role is not only to enhance Israel programming on campus, “but to encourage students to visit Israel and assist them in selecting the most appropriate either short-term program, such as Birthright, or long term, Masa-sponsored educational experience.”
She says the fellows often serve as recruiters for Hillel’s Birthright trips, and then travel to Israel with the students to act as their group leaders.
Jerusalemite Yael Gertel, 26, who is in her first year as JAFI fellow to the Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that this winter she will be bringing three busloads of students to Israel on a Birthright trip.
While she has only been at her job for just over two months, she feels that she has “been able to serve as an important resource for the students and help them create a deeper conversation about Israel.”
While the University of Maryland does have an active Jewish and pro-Israel community, she continues, “I have a chance in my role to reach them in a more sophisticated manner, and not just to explain Israel as the place where you eat humous and felafel.”
Both she and Hoch describe regularly scheduled Israel-centered programs and events on their respective campuses, the primary aim of which is to educate.
Whether it’s watching the US presidential debates together with the students on campus and discussing implications for US/Israel relations, bringing in Israeli speakers in a variety of fields, or hosting Israeli movie nights at the Hillel House, Hoch says his goal is always to “bring a wide representation of Israeli society to campus, in order to show how diverse a place Israel is.”
In addition to the educational opportunities they provide, Yitzhaki notes that fellows are also trained and prepared to combat any anti-Israel activism, which she says has become prevalent on many campuses throughout the academic world since the second intifada.
“Our fellows are there to assist the Jewish students on campus to stand up for Israel by providing them with the tools they need to present a balanced picture of Israel,” she says. “Whether there is an anti-Israel group spreading libels on campus, claiming that Israel is an apartheid state, or even a professor who doesn’t have his facts straight, the students know they can turn to our fellows to help them get the message out that Israel is a country dealing with security issues and existential threats, but is still a protector of women’s rights, minority rights, etc.”
Yitzhaki, who was a fellow for two years at the University of Illinois several years ago, understands firsthand what the students on campus come across in terms of anti-Israel bias. She also cites several recent success stories in which fellows working together with students were able to make a difference in standing up for the Jewish state.
For example, she says, thanks to student activism led by their JAFI fellow at the University of California, Irvine, the Muslim Student Union there was suspended for a year after 11 of its members repeatedly disrupted a February 2010 speech by Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, calling him a “killer.” Ten of the hecklers were also charged in an Orange County Superior Court on two misdemeanor counts of “conspiracy to willfully commit a crime and disrupt a public meeting.” They face up to six months in jail for interrupting Oren’s talk.
In addition, in the past year alone, fellows have empowered students to organize against calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel; they have mobilized student-led responses to campus visits from hostile speakers; and they have successfully advocated for Israeli universities’ reinstatement on rosters of approved study-abroad options.
Fellows have also played a key leadership role in “Talk Israel,” an initiative in which centrally-located tents pop up on dozens of campuses across North America. Inside these tents, Jewish and non-Jewish students host programs that showcased Israel’s contemporary culture.
Weiss believes the fellows are an important resource capable of reaching out to non-Jewish groups on campus, as well as administration officials, since “they are essentially Israel ambassadors.” He adds that the emissaries “can have a major impact on local Jewish residents in small communities, where campus life is the focus in some of these towns.”
Benjamin Rutland, a Jerusalem-based spokesman for JAFI, says that after nearly a decade, the fellows program has reached a “critical mass.”
“When US Ambassador Oren and JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky get together and discuss life on campus in the US, Oren tells Sharansky that he can feel the difference between campuses that have JAFI fellows and those that don’t,” he says, adding that “Sharansky truly believes that reaching young American students and educating them about Israel at this stage in their lives is critical, as many of them will grow up to be the future leaders of North American Jewry.”
Hoch says he “for sure” plans on keeping in touch with the students he is meeting at the three Orange County campuses where he serves. He is especially looking forward to running into them again when they come to study abroad in Israel.
“The most important aspect of this shlihut [mission],” he says, “is the institution itself. This isn’t just about me personally coming here for two years, but when I go back to Israel, a new shaliah will arrive and continue to foster and cultivate the existing relationships I helped build [and the shaliah before me built] on campus. In other words, shlihim come and go, but this fellows program is an ongoing investment by JAFI in the Jewish community in North America.”