Four years ago, when the second intifada was at its peak in Israel, North Carolina Hillel Executive Director Or Mars noticed "a lot of buzz about Israel" among students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But while many of them were eager to advocate for the Jewish homeland, Mars discovered that they lacked more than a basic background in Israeli history, culture and politics.
"They really wanted to do something about Israel, but they didn't have a lot of knowledge," Mars said. "Defending Israel is important, but defending it for what?"
Motivated to provide students with an educational experience rather than advocacy training, Mars and former student leader and Grinspoon Israel Advocacy Intern Ruthie Warshenbrot created Bina, a 10-week curriculum that encourages students think deeply about Israel and its place in their Jewish identity. By utilizing a variety of sources – rabbinic and biblical texts, modern Israeli poetry and films and essays by Zionist philosophers, among others – the initiative allows students to challenge their assumptions and ways of thinking about Israel. An instant success at UNC-Chapel Hill, Bina is now being offered at five other Hillels for the first time this spring.
Though the programs at Northwestern University, the University of Virginia, Muhlenberg College, the College of William and Mary and the University of Kansas are only about halfway complete, the Hillel professionals are already raving about its help in developing a dialogue among participants about their relationships to Israel.
"It's phenomenal for our campus," said Jay Lewis, the executive director at University of Kansas Hillel. "We needed to offer something substantial in area of Jewish education and Israel, and it's really exceeded our expectations."
"It's a very pleasant surprise because we go to a very demanding school, and to take another class on top of everything is hard," said Teva Brown, the student coordinator for the group at the College of William and Mary.
All participating Hillels received the core curriculum developed at North Carolina Hillel, but many are tweaking it to suit their own campuses and take advantage of local resources. KU Hillel invited the local Israeli shaliach (emissary) to one session to lead a mock Zionist congress, where students took on the roles of early philosophers and advocates such as Theodor Herzl. For the session about Israeli artists, the William and Mary group plans to rent space on campus for the students to perform the poems and songs included in the curriculum. Participants at UNC-Chapel Hill will screen Israeli movies as part of the unit on Israeli culture.
"Anything goes – we don't have an agenda other than giving the students a better understanding of Israel as part of their Jewish identity," Mars said.
And while the initiative was initially created to serve exclusively Jewish students, Muhlenberg College Hillel is taking a different approach by offering it as an interfaith program.
"We saw it as a new model to educate non-Jews about Israel and to educate Jews on how to articulate Israel to non-Jews," said Jonathan Lentz, the student coordinator for the Muhlenberg group and the college's religious life presidential assistant, who is not Jewish himself.
With 14 participants – about half of whom are Jewish – the Muhlenberg group is a bit smaller than the recommended size of 20, but Lentz said the program is proceeding well as they have completed the units on Israel's biblical roots, the modern state and the peace process.
"It's still sort of a learning process for people. They're asking a lot of tougher questions than before," he said.
The other Bina campuses are noticing a similar increased comfort level among their participants as they get further into the curriculum.
"People feel comfortable standing up and saying if they don't agree with us," said Tracy Altman, the development associate at KU Hillel who is facilitating the initiative on her campus.
"When our session ends at 9 p.m. and they're still conversing at 9:30, you know they're really into it," said Geoffrey Brown, the director of Balfour Hillel at the College of William and Mary.
Not surprisingly, the students aren't the only ones who benefit from the 10-week initiative. The Hillel professionals report that they take away as much from the program as they put into it.
"I grow each year and I'm challenged just as much as they are," Mars said.