Campus communicators come through

How young Israelis reach out to peers on college campuses and learn something unexpected.

Daniela Amir, (third from left), who recently started to serve as an Israel Fellow together with students (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniela Amir, (third from left), who recently started to serve as an Israel Fellow together with students
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 An ambassador’s son on a mission, Yonatan Millo says representing Israel abroad was always part of his life. He had watched his late father, Yehuda Millo, speak out for Israel as ambassador to Italy and Turkey and felt early on his own vocation burgeoning.
“I grew up in a diplomatic family,” he told The Jerusalem Post over Succot.
Today, at 30 years of age, after serving in the IDF for five years, obtaining a degree in government and conducting a range of projects involving Israel’s outreach to the world, Millo follows in his father’s footsteps. He serves as one of the Jewish Agency’s 79 Israel Fellows working in Hillel centers on campuses in North America and around the world, and is in charge of Israel education at Yale University in Connecticut.
Millo’s main goal, he told the Post, is to bridge between Israeli and American Jews, the “two main parts of the tribe,” according to him.
“I always had connections with young Americans,” he said. “The more I grew up, the more I thought that the connection between American Judaism and Israeli Judaism is paramount for the Jewish people, but today, we are getting further and further apart.”
Millo, who is in his second year serving at Yale, also learned much from watching his dad work for the foreign ministry as a child.
“The main thing it made me see is the ability just to explain the complexity beyond the stereotype,” he told the Post. “Growing up abroad gives you a very different sense of what people know and can understand. I grew up in a very international setting and that’s why I have much less of a stereotype of different people and I bring that experience, my personal experience, to my work.”
Now in its 13th year, the Israel Fellows program is a joint initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel International. The Fellows, who are typically between 25 and 30 years old, spend two or three years on the campus they are assigned to, working as that campus’s link to Israel.
“Israeliness” is crucial
Participants go through a “very vigorous” screening process involving a series of tests, interviews and workshops to “earn their position on campus”, explains Shelley Kedar, Hillel International’s director of the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program.
“These young Israeli professionals, who have completed their army service and have at least an undergraduate degree, are leaving everything behind. It’s a very un-postmodern thing to do,” she told the Post.
“They are putting everything on hold and they come. Some of them are leaving important positions: I have a few lawyers, I have accountants, software engineers, educators.”
Kedar insists the selected Fellows are “a different type of people” and highlights their dedication.
“They really think about the greater good of the Jewish people and they really care about what’s going on in the world, in general and with respect to Israel,” she said. “After they return to Israel, they usually become influential individuals in Israeli society. We see our alumni now serving in the public sphere, in NGOs, doing really meaningful things across the country.”
Kedar explained the Israel Fellows are focused on three areas. The first, Israel engagement, involves cultivating relationships with Israel advocates and allies on campus, in order to build coalitions with diverse student groups. Secondly, they are in charge of Israel education, teaching Israel’s history, culture and society through original on-campus programming. Lastly, they encourage Israel experience through programs like Birthright, Onward and Masa, which offer trips and internships to discover Israel.
“They’re very important I think for two reasons,” Kedar told the Post. “One is that usually they will be the only Israeli that has this role on campus. Secondly they are professional, they know what they are doing and are strategic about what they want to be achieving on campus so that also makes them very valuable.”
In recent years, a fourth mission has been put in front of the Israel Fellows: fighting the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement on their campus.
“On campuses, most of the time Israel is black and white: it’s either good or it's bad,” Kedar said. “So you need an Israeli to understand that actually there is a complexity to it in the good sense of the word. Their Israeliness is crucial.”
“The program has grown so big because the field necessitates it,” she added.
Each campus requires a different, tailor-made approach when it comes to the Fellows’ work for Israel.
Yonatan Millo explained that although the BDS movement and anti-Israel rallies are not much of a problem at Yale, the challenge he faces with his students is even greater.
“What the Yale students expect and want is to have much more intellectual, pluralistic, in-depth conversations about Israel,” he explained. “It means that as an educator I have to raise my level to match that and really run programs that are not superficial.”
“The all-too-common pro-Israel/anti-Israel noise, which sometimes pervades activities elsewhere, doesn’t work here at Yale at all. Students just don’t buy into it,” he noted.
From Jezreel to Africa to Sacramento
Daniela Amir, 26 years old, just began her service as an Israel Fellow at the shared Hillel center of UC Davis and Sacramento State.
Born in the US to Israeli parents, Amir was entering first grade when she moved to the Jezreel Valley in Northern Israel. Her household, she told the Post, has always been a very Zionist and pro-Israel environment.
After a three-year service in the IDF’s home front command, like many Israelis, Daniela took a long backpacker’s trip, and chose to spend it volunteering in Africa.
“It came from that feeling that I want to give of myself,” she told the Post on the phone. “I really believe that everyone has the ability to give something from themselves to others. It could be money or so many other kinds of support.”
When she came back from Africa, it was clear to Amir that social work was her way of becoming what she calls “a meaningful member of the community.”
Amir studied for her BA in social work at the Hebrew University and got a job at Jewish Agency’s absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants at the same time. That experience inspired her to apply to the Israel Fellows program and represent Israel on campuses abroad, which she felt was “the right thing to do”.
In the two months since Amir started working as an Israel Fellow, she said she hasn’t encountered any anti- Israel movements or BDS presence on campus. However, she told the Post, there is much to be done when it comes to Israel education.
“Generally, I feel that Israel is some far country in the Middle East for the students and there is not enough knowledge,” she explained. “It shows when they need to advocate for Israel or say something to defend Israel. Not a lot of students know the right word or the exact historical fact.”
Amir believes the key to bringing Israel to the forefront on her campuses is through her personal connections with the students. She has organized cooking workshops with Israeli cuisine of variegated ethnic backgrounds, and will be bringing to campus a renowned Israeli vegan chef, to expose students to this hot sector of the Israeli food scene.
But sometimes it’s more about food for thought: “A lot of students come to me and ask about things they saw on the news,” she explained.
“For example, there was this UNESCO resolution about Jerusalem, which caused a lot of diplomatic stir. People wanted to talk about it. I don’t perceive my role as a provider of official answers, but it was important to facilitate a discussion and to refer them to various news sources that treated the issue from different angles” Other times, it can get personal: “Quite often, they just see how things affect me, and they come and ask how I feel about it or send me some sort of supportive message. When Shimon Peres passed away, I got all these comforting messages. That was very touching,” Amir added.
“They get the connection,” she said. “Suddenly Israel has a face.” It was a somewhat unexpected reckoning.
Yonatan Millo said that he has also learned a surprising thing at Yale: “This was a revelation for me: I learned that Jewish Americans, no matter what their opinion about Israel is, anything from pro- or anti- or disillusioned with or apathetic to Israel, it still plays a part in their identity.”
“We haven't found a way to really build that up, but if you listen to the students, you'll find that Israel exists in their Jewish identity. They can't deny it,” he explained. “It's something that I didn't really realize before. It made me understand my work goes way beyond just communications.”
This is the first in a series of articles in conjunction with the Jewish Agency.