As recently as one year ago, Hillel in Israel wasn't an easy sell for Yossie Ciechanover. When the chairman of the Hillel Israel Steering Committee would approach Israelis about the organization, he would often receive an indifferent response.
"They would say, 'We understand Hillel. We know that it's very important in universities abroad. But why in Israel?'" Ciechanover said. "Now I don't hear that question anymore."
The president of The Challenge Fund - Etgar, a private equity venture capital in Israel, and the former chairman of El Al airlines, Ciechanover's business savvy and extensive networking skills have helped bring Hillel in Israel into a new era. By working closely with lay leaders, such as Board of Directors Vice-Chair Adam Bronfman, and professionals like Yossie Goldman, the associate vice president of Hillel in Israel, Ciechanover has expanded the steering committee to include leaders in all areas of Israel's economic arena. Echoing the committee's evolution, Hillel's reputation in Israel has grown as well.
"There is hardly any academic institution that didn't approach me about establishing a Hillel center at their campus," he said. "Now we don't have to convince deans and directors about the importance of Hillel."
Ciechanover became convinced himself several years ago, when his friendship with Hillel International Board of Governors Chairman Edgar M. Bronfman sparked his interest in the organization.
"If Edgar feels it is important, that triggers me to find out more about it and get involved," he said. "And when I learned more, I was called by it."
Ciechanover joined the Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life Board of Directors and began visiting campuses in Israel. As he met with potential committee members, he had to address the skepticism many felt about Hillel's purpose in Israel.
"We need an apolitical institution for Israeli college students. We need a place where students from Israel and abroad can get together. We need a place where they encounter political and social problems and meet the leaders who are working to solve them," he said. "Hillel provides all of that."
With the grand opening of Hillel at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in 2004, the number of Hillels in Israel increased to three, joining Hillel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Ellin Mitchell Hillel Program at Tel Aviv University. Ciechanover has now set his sights on Haifa, where 40,000 students attend area universities, such as the University of Haifa and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He is also interested in the northern Galilee region, where more than 20,000 students study in six area colleges that will soon be incorporated into a new university.
Hillel in Israel is also helping to strengthen Jewish student life by increasing the number of Jewish students altogether. Together with Israel's chief rabbinate, Hillel has created a special curriculum for students who wish to convert to Judaism. The program is only one month old, and 100 students have already registered. Ciechanover hopes to secure funding to allow more students to participate.
"More resources will allow us to have an important impact on Israeli society and get more foreigners and Israeli students to their roots -- both need it badly," he said.
For more information about Hillel in Israel, visit its Web site.