On Friday, August 23, four Hillel students from Towson University were sitting on a basketball court planning for the upcoming school year. The only thing that made this scene unusual was the fact that Towson University is outside of Baltimore, MD, and the basketball court was in Honesdale, PA. Megan Goldsmith, Stacey Whitman, Chaim Lazarus and Linda Verbit were all taking part in Hillel's annual Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly.
The Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly brings together over 500 college students from more than 140 campuses around the world to collaborate and best prepare for the school year. "It brings us together with people who have similar Hillels but different programming ideas." Goldsmith said. For the students who participated in this week, collaboration was the word on everyone's lips.
The conference, held at Camp Moshava in Honesdale, PA, is in many respects a typical camp experience. There are wooden cabins, boating, singing, and, of course, camp food. But in addition to the standard camp experiences that these students share, they come together to share ideas about how best to "do Jewish" on their campus.
Take Todd Kirschen, for example. Kirschen is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a campus that is served by the Soref Initiative for Emerging Campuses. Campuses served by the Soref Initiative do not have a full-time Hillel staff, which can make it difficult for the students. When asked what he would take away from the conference, Kirschen responded, "It's a chance for me to give the other [non-involved] students a chance to find themselves Jewishly. Sure, you do it for yourself, but you also do it for everyone else. This way, I can engage other people in their college experience."
The students at this conference were offered many different ways to engage others. In addition to the general programming, students were able to enhance their experience with one of three additional tracks. Students interested in the arts could participate in many hands-on workshops and lectures, including the creation of a mural and seminars with Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the best-selling book "Everything is Illuminated," and with Sandi Simcha DuBowski, director of the movie "Trembling Before God." The social justice or Tzedek track focussed on advocacy, coalition building and the environment. The Israel track helped students to learn more about the Middle East and to become pro-Israel advocates on campus. Senior Alison Marlowe from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign went to sessions for both the Israel and Tzedek tracks. "As a senior," commented Marlowe, "I felt skeptical about what I could get out of Leaders, but I was able to find people in a similar situation. Leaders helped me get great ideas about how to do Tzedek and Israel programming back on campus."
With the Jewish community increasingly focused on Jewish life on university campuses, top national Jewish leaders in the fields of arts, Israel, social action, Jewish education and journalism participated in the conference. These included United Jewish Communities Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hoffman, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris, Jewish Council for Public Affairs Executive Director Hanna Rosenthal, and Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein. Eli Portnoy of the University of Pennsylvania identified Malcolm Hoenlein as the "most memorable part of the Conference."
Many students at the conference took the time to reevaluate the way they program and advocate on campus. Regarding the conflict in the Middle East, Leigh Finkel from SUNY Binghamton said, "On my campus, when there is a pro-Palestinian activity, the response is always the same. Now, by talking to other schools I've been able to get some great new ideas on how to proactively program on campus." The president of SUNY Stony Brook's Hillel, Robert Ayzin, learned the need for "continuous effort: There's no room for complacency."
The conference wasn't only about sitting and listening, though, and it certainly wasn't only political. From an all-day color-war-style Maccabiah event, to nightly singing and dancing, the students added fun-filled activities to the already packed schedule. Friday's Maccabiah event pitted each chavurah against the others in competitions of cheers, trivia, water balloon toss, and disgusting human tricks. Every night at dinner, a table would break out into a traditional Jewish song that would be inevitably followed by dancing.
This year's conference was also the most international conference ever. In addition to students from Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Canada, the former Soviet Union and the United States, this year's assembly hosted the first representatives from France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Hungary. Zina Shlizerman, a student attending the University of Connecticut from Moldova said, "It was a wonderful event for young adults to learn about Jewish experiences. This was something that will affect the rest of our lives."
Jeffrey Lazor of Michigan State University also was affected greatly by the Leaders Assembly. "It made me realize that I need to get a lot more involved. Leaders has opened up my eyes and showed me many different ways to help the Jewish Community." Students left the conference feeling empowered to do just that - help the Jewish community. Hillel President and International Director Richard Joel echoed these sentiments saying, "It was wonderful meeting so many enthusiastic young Jewish leaders. These students are learning to take empowerment and engagement back to campus. Their commitment is making Jewish renaissance come alive."
In the end, students were excited to meet such a variety of people and they wanted to continue the efforts they started at the assembly. "There are so many different people and different ideas, it's important to continue to work with everybody," said David Zaks, also from Michigan State University. As Towson's Linda Verbit said, "The future starts with us."
• Pro-Israel Students Return to School Geared Up for Next Round of Tension, by Rachel Pomerance, JTA News, August 27, 2002
• Training Student Leaders In Tough Times, by Gary Rosenblatt, The Jewish Week, August 30, 2002