While most Israel Fellows were new faces at their campus Hillels this year, students at the University of California, Davis and California State University, Sacramento welcomed back Israel Fellow Ronen Weiss, who was one of six Israelis to pilot the program last year.
"I really enjoyed the work I did last year and felt there was more I could do, so I stayed," he said.
A native of Ashkelon, Weiss studied computer science and mathematics at Bar-Ilan University after serving four years as an intelligence officer in the Israeli army. While in college, he traveled to Germany with a delegation of Israeli students to advocate on his country's behalf, and the experience encouraged him to continue working with students and educating them about Israel after his university years.
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.
"Israel needs to speak louder. Whether we are right or wrong, people need to learn more about Israel," Weiss said.
Weiss has planned a full calendar of events for the 2004-05 academic year, ranging from Hebrew conversation sessions and Israeli movie screenings to weeklong cultural celebrations.
"I'm trying to offer each Jewish student a program he would be interested in," he said.
birthright israel recruitment is a top priority for all Israel Fellows, and Weiss is proud to report that 57 students from Davis and Sacramento have registered for this winter's trips. He is also a strong advocate of Israeli internship opportunities and helped to place six students in internships with Israeli organizations last year.
Weiss is also helping to expand the circle of activities beyond the Davis and Sacramento campuses. He arranged for 40 students to attend a recent performance of the Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nahash at the University of California, Berkeley, and five students joined their peers from other Northern California schools for a Shabbaton sponsored by San Francisco's Israel Center.
In the coming months, Weiss plans to partner with other ethnic and cultural campus groups to reach out to non-Jewish students as well. For Black Heritage Month in February, he is bringing Ethiopian Jewish students to Hillel to speak out about being Jews of color in Israel and organizing a photography exhibition called "A Day in the Life of Ethiopian Jews in Israel." Weiss has also reached out to Hispanic student organizations to co-sponsor the screening of a documentary in which a Jewish filmmaker from Panama shares his story about his travels and eventual move to Israel.
"It's good to share with non-Jewish students about how Israel accepts immigrants," he said.
Weiss says Hillel at Davis and Sacramento enjoys a good relationship with the Muslim Students Association. Both groups participated in a recent interfaith progressive dinner, and the MSA invited Jewish students to join in its Eid al-Fitr celebration to mark the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. Weiss hopes that the success of these programs demonstrates that Arabs and Israelis can live peacefully together.
"I try to get the Jewish and Muslim students to sit together to share their life stories and show a possibility of coexistence," he said. "If they can coexist here, they can do it in Israel."