Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with students at NYU. Photo: Max W. Orenstein
Hillel professionals were prepared to face a wave of anti-Israel activity in recent weeks as students returned to school. But the mood was celebratory on most campuses, with welcome-back barbecues, special events and packed Shabbat dinners.
A friendly crowd of 900 students greeted former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at New York University, where he said: “We have to fight. We have to dispel the vilification of Israel.”
The annual return of 350,000 Jewish college students to campus is always a time of great anticipation for Hillel. Hillel professionals prepare programs that will welcome a cross-section of Jewish undergraduates and graduates, easing the jitters of first-years and helping upper-class students to take on leadership roles. But after a summer in which Israel was forced to secure its northern border against Hezbollah rocket attacks, Hillel professionals were prepared for the worst.
The Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) sponsored an emergency summit that brought together its 35 member-organizations to discuss campus strategies. Hillel’s Jewish Agency for Israel shaliach Ilan Wagner created educational resources to help answer students’ questions. Jewish Agency Israel Fellows, Grinspoon Interns and student activists trained to create innovative Israel education programs on their campuses. And at Carnegie Mellon University, Hillel activists confronted anti-Israel protestors.
But in the early weeks of the semester, Jewish students are enjoying their return to campus rather than confronting anti-Israel slurs. Registration for Taglit-birthright israel trips, free ten-day trips to Israel, is keeping pace with previous years. Hillel is preparing to send hundreds of students to Israel this winter on missions to repair bomb-damaged buildings in the north, among other activities.
“Hillel is doing what it does best,” explains Hillel’s newly-elected President Wayne Firestone. “We are welcoming students back to campus and providing them with many different ways to enrich their lives.”
Students at DePaul University, the nation’s largest Catholic university, inaugurated a new Hillel facility. Cornell University President David J. Skorton was one of 1,500 attendees at Cornell Hillel’s third annual Shabbat 1000. And Orthodox Yale University students will find it easier to carry their belongings on the High Holidays and Shabbat with the construction of an eruv, a symbolic “fence.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of Hillel professionals are gearing up to offer meaningful High Holy Day services for tens of thousands of Jewish students.