In my four years in the United States, launching Hillel International’s Israel Education and Engagement Department, I have had a front-row seat to some of the biggest issues and debates facing Jewish identity, US Jewish-Israel relations and the future of the Israel cause on campus.
I’ve done more than observe; I’ve participated actively in these issues as a leader of one of the most influential and unsung Israel education programs on campus – the Jewish Agency’s Israel Fellows program, which places 75 Israeli young adults at campus Hillels.
I’m familiar with the usual concerns about the campus: That Israel and Jewish students are under constant attack and that Jewish identity as a whole is in decline.
These challenges are real, but there is a deeper, and more hopeful story. I know this because I work with thousands of students every year, visit dozens of campuses and interact with hundreds of campus educators, rabbis and professionals of every stripe.
What I see and hear is this: Today’s Jewish students feel a spark of connection to Israel. They may not always be able to explain it, but they feel it. But today’s college-age Jews need more than what’s in their kishkes. They need a deeper understanding, compelling facts and the first-hand experiences that allow them to make their own connection to Israel and to explain that connection to themselves and their peers.
Hillel is doing the work to create that understanding – and getting better at it. This year, our Israel Action Program helped develop and fund more than 1,000 campus programs that reached 155,000 students.
We launched a diverse speakers bureau of more than 40 Israel experts who share their perspectives on politics, activism, arts, culture and technology; we initiated 17,500 individual conversations about Israel; we helped Hillel remain the most active and effective recruiter for Birthright Israel and other study and learning trips to Israel; and we led the way in introducing pro-Israel activities to the entire campus community.
These are tangible steps in making the connection to Israel more than an emotional tug – it is becoming an intellectually rigorous, nuanced and serious program. And the campus is responding. Increasingly, Jewish students are confidently making the case for Israel, even when opposed by horrendous intimidation and immaturity. They step up and speak up.
There is, however, room for improvement in how we deepen the connection between American and Israeli Jews. As an Israeli with vast experience living outside Israel, I have come to love and appreciate Jewish communities far different than the ones I know from back home. What worries me is that many Israelis do not have the same feeling of connection and belonging to world Jewry as the one world Jewry has for Israel.
This is why one of the least heralded but most important functions of the Israel Fellows program is not only sending young Israeli adults to campuses, but also bringing them back home, so they can share what they’ve learned.
Each year I watch our Israel Fellows learn, with awe, the value of Jewish pluralism from the communities where they live. Hillel is a critical part of that education. At Hillel, every student and professional is free to bring their own beliefs and practices as part of our community. At Hillel’s annual summer training institute, there exists every kind of Jew – those who observe Shabbat, those who remember Shabbat and those who are still searching for the meaning of Shabbat; those who pray and those who find spiritual strength while doing yoga or practicing meditation. At Hillel, we welcome and include Jews of every shape, color and ethnic background – we share one roof and celebrate Jewish peoplehood and education together.
I hope that this lesson sticks with the Israel Fellows because it’s a wonderful model for how to live and think Jewishly, whether in Israel or outside it. If we can learn from each other, there is no limit to what we can do as a global community.
In 1948, the global Jewish community came together to create the miracle of the modern state of Israel. In the 1970s and 1980s, this community came together to free Russian Jews from the yoke of Soviet oppression; later we turned our attention to the cause of the Ethiopian Jewish community.
Today, we must work together to close the rifts within our community. Controversial issues such as egalitarian access to the Kotel and the conversion bill in the Knesset have highlighted those things that divide us.
Let us resolve to listen to each other, to discover the value of pluralism, and to find common ground wherever possible. I recognize that these challenges are great; I am not naïve about the prospect for an easy solution.
But I am heartened to know that the campus has given us an example of what’s possible. I’ve seen the face of pluralism — on campus. I’ve seen a fresh wave of effective Israel education — on campus. I’ve seen the new connections being made between Israel and Jewish communities — on campus.
Our future is taking shape every day on campus. I’ll never forget what I’ve learned here, and I hope that others will come to see that the campus is where we must invest our time, our resources and our people.
Shelly Kedar is the outgoing Hillel International Vice President for Israel Education and Engagement and The Jewish Agency for Israel’s senior shlicha to Hillel.