Mercer University is home to a thriving Students Supporting Israel chapter; one that is passionate and driven in regards to their pro-Israel advocacy and everything surrounding it. Shanna Mattson is this years president of SSI, and is studying Industrial Engineering – using her free time to play drums in multiple ensembles.
Shanna has always felt as though there should be a club where pro-Israel and Jewish students could get together and grow as a community, and that’s what sparked creating an SSI at Mercer University, “we had this little Passover seder in one of the freshman halls and couldn’t stop talking about opening an Israel club”. After meeting with Ilan, the founder of SSI, Shanna knew that there needed to be an SSI on campus.
Considering the fact that Mercer University has a small Jewish population, Shanna was determined to create a place where all pro-Israel students (Jewish or not Jewish) could come together, “There was interest from students, and I wanted there to be a platform to create a community and find people with similar interests”.
Misconceptions about Israel have caused many people to form inaccurate depictions of the state, and this is something that Shanna has had close encounters with throughout her college experience, “I went to Israel after my freshman year, and I absolutely loved it. In high school, I heard a lot of bad things about Israel, so I went on my own little investigation, which ultimately made me even more passionate about it”.
Visiting Israel was a meaningful trip for Shanna, but Ein Gedi stood out unlike any other, “We hiked up the mountains and suddenly saw a beautiful oasis. We read Psalm 57, which is the one that David wrote when he was in Ein Gedi. Being there and imaging David running from his life and then coming across waterfalls and a beautiful oasis was a really meaningful image, and cool connection”.
Speakers show the audience the lived-experiences that many people have gone through, and SSI of Mercer University has taken that into account, and used it to their advantage, “We hosted Abe Haak, and before his speaking event we were able to sit and have coffee with him which was really important because it allowed us to learn more about his life and everything that he went through”.
A closed environment leaves no space for improvement, and Shanna and her team have always made a point to create an open dialogue after their speakers have said their piece, “Q+A is a very important aspect because it’s pointless to have a speaker if we don’t create a space for dialogue afterwards, so we are always working on that”.
Mercer University is an overall open and nice campus, and has students that are generally willing to have a discussion and speak their piece, instead of yelling and walking away, “So far, people are open to dialogue even if they disagree”.
When talking about the impact that pro-Israel activism has had on Shanna, she was quick to respond, “It’s taught me what it’s like to have the weight of responsibility on my back, and I’ve also been able to learn a lot of nuances on the topic [Israel] which I think that most people don’t consider”.
Shanna’s Jewish identity has sparked a big interest in pro-Israel advocacy, and even learning about the state in general; “Knowing that my ancestors are from Israel has consequently made me want to learn more about it, I’ve always been fascinated in learning about where my family came from, so for me a big part of it is understanding the story of my people”.
Shanna has one piece of advice to give to the members of SSI all across the country, “Do whatever it takes to create a space for dialogue. I think that a lot of times there are things to be understood from people on both sides, so a real conversation needs to happen”.