The three Israel Fellows working at Canadian universities this year are warming up the chilly winter with a variety of engaging programs. Now starting their second semesters on campus, Tal Kita, Leah Biteolin and Elad Guberman have settled into their fellowships and have planned busy schedules for the spring.
The Israel Fellows Program is a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and birthright israel, which places outstanding young Israelis on key North American campuses for a year of educational service as Hillel staff members. The fellows focus on Israel programming on campus, working with birthright returnees and recruiting for Israel programs.
Kita, a native of Haifa who is taking a break from her studies at Haifa University, is enjoying her work at the University of Ottawa and Carlton University. She had previously taught at an ulpan (intensive Hebrew study program) in Israel with young families, but when the Jewish Agency approached her about becoming a shlichah (emissary), she found working with college students to be more appealing.
"At this age, students start to establish their own opinions and thoughts," she said. "It's the best time to catch them – they don't know much about Israel."
Coming to a city with a small Jewish student population, Kita found her work to be challenging at first. The Jewish Student Association of Ottawa was only a one-person operation at the time, and students were not particularly active.
"I could see their potential, but no one gave the students the opportunity," she said.
However, that has begun to change, thanks to the attractive programming Kita is offering. A speech by Irshad Manji, the author of "The Trouble of Islam," drew 300 students to hear her view on Israel, Islam and diversity. The Israeli ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, paid his first visit to campus to speak about Yitzhak Rabin's legacy and his role in the Oslo Accord negotiations. Kita also organized an Israel Program Day, where representatives from the Israel Aliyah Center in Montreal came to meet with students in long-term Israel programs.
Since Ottawa is home to many international students, including those from the Middle East, Kita enjoys practicing her Arabic with them. She surprised many of her students when they saw her speaking with leaders from the Palestinian student group since the Jewish students did not have a positive relationship with the group in recent years. She said relations between the Jewish and Palestinian students have been quiet so far this year, though she is curious to see if that will continue into the second semester.
Across the province from Kita in London, Ontario, Biteolin is amazed that her stay at the University of Western Ontario is already halfway done. A graduate of Bar-Ilan University who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia at age 3, she was inspired to become a fellow after hearing about the anti-Israel atmosphere on many North American college campuses.
"You can say, 'Everyone hates us' and give up, or you can do something about it," she said.
In contrast to Kita's experience in Ottawa, Biteolin arrived at a very organized Hillel with large and active student board. Most of her work involves the Israel Action Committee, a new student organization that advocates for Israel on campus. The fall semester was filled with Hebrew classes, Israeli movies and speakers, and she also brought a traveling art exhibit to campus about Ethiopian Jewry. When students became upset after Palestinian Day on campus featured a mock security fence, Biteolin encouraged the students to channel their feelings into planning an Israel program fair and party.
Upcoming events for the spring semester include a program with representatives from IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian relief organization, co-sponsored with the Jewish medical students club and the medical school, and a reunion with Israeli soldiers whom the students previously met during a birthright israel trip. Biteolin is also planning an Israel Day, a hasbara (advocacy) conference and a fashion show featuring Israeli designers.
Biteolin knows that she will not be able to accomplish everything she'd like to do this year and is considering extending her fellowship – if the weather cooperates.
"We'll see how I handle this winter," she said.
Guberman, the Israel Fellow at Vancouver Hillel, was also prompted to become a shaliach by news of Israel's negative image overseas. After seeing a documentary about Benjamin Netanyahu's contentious visit Concordia University in Montreal, he decided that he needed to support Canadian Jews and arrived in Vancouver in August. He works with students at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Langara College and Kwantlen University College.
"Everyone here is treating me very well – the community is really nice," he said.
Guberman, who is from Ra'anana and graduated from Ben Gurion University, was pleased to find a strong Israel agenda among Jewish students, and large interest from non-Jewish students as well. Working with the Israel Advocacy Club, he started an "Israel Beyond the Conflict" campaign, where he tables on campus the second week of each month about a different, non-political aspect of Israeli society, such as food, technology, agriculture and the arts.
"I want to show them that Israel is a normal country – with problems – but a normal country," he said.
To that end, Guberman has recruited a group of Israelis who are studying in Vancouver to act as ambassadors for their country and help with programming throughout the year. He also planned a hugely successful mega-event for birthright israel alumni that attracted 400 people and recruits potential participants for future trips. Guberman hopes that by the end of year, he has helped students strengthen their relationship with Israel.
"My goal is to move the students one step closer to Israel than they are now, from knowing nothing about Israel to knowing a little, from knowing a little to going on birthright, from going on birthright to participating in a long-term program," he said.