By Wayne L. Firestone, President
(Sderot, Israel – November 18) With rockets falling in and around Sderot on a daily basis, it was unclear until almost the last minute whether our bus of UJC General Assembly participants would be allowed to travel to the Negev town to visit Sapir College and meet with local residents. In fact, ten rockets continued to hit the area yesterday despite a tour of the region by the Israeli defense minister and British foreign minister. In the end, our bus of students and lay leaders from Israel and North America was given the green light.
The harsh reality of life under threat became readily apparent to us as we visited Sderot’s police station where every rocket is defused, labeled and stored. We saw row upon row of metal tubes labeled by date and sponsoring organization: This one was claimed by Hammas, that one by Islamic Jihad, etc. It was chilling to say the least.
The constant threat of rocket attacks has not dimmed the enthusiasm of the 8,000 students at Sapir College where they have just returned to campus after a long summer break. This is the time of year when groups are recruiting participants and showing off their activities on campus. The campus is buzzing with activity. One of the most successful groups is the new Hillel which is making an impact on campus and in the community.
Hillel activists at Sapir have combed the country collecting items for their on-campus thrift store which sells the goods to raise money for student activities and scholarships. Not only does the money help Sapir students, it raises the profile of this beseiged campus across the country.
I walked across campus to the school radio station, where students were smoking cigarettes and rock music was blaring from the speakers – it could have been a college radio station anywhere in America, sans cigarettes. Two Hillel activists were preparing their scripts for their weekly show, an hour-long examination of the weekly Torah portion in contemporary terms. It’s the only item of Jewish identity on the station which broadcasts to the campus and the surrounding Negev Region.
From Sderot we took a short ride to Beer Sheva and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. We were treated to a performance of a Ladino song by students who had developed their work as part of a Hillel program. We also met with university president Rivka Carmi. President Carmi first became familiar with Hillel when she was a graduate student at Harvard Univeristy. She told us that while she was originally resistant to the idea of a Hillel on campus – “Why do Israeli students need a Jewish outlet?” she asked – Hillel has become her key partner in fulfilling her vision of a university that serves students and community alike.
President Carmi spoke highly of our Hillel director at Ben-Gurion, Asaf Ovadia. Asaf, like his counterpart at Sapir, Eyal Mazliah, was a university student on Israeli campuses when he was introduced to Hillel and our pluralistic approach to Jewish identity. He had no previously considered the nature of his Jewish identity, much less a career as a Jewish educator. Today, he is fully immersed in his Jewish heritage and sharing his enthusiasm with students.
The beauty of our trip to the Negev wasn’t just the scenery or the camaraderie, but the ability of Hillel stakeholders – and all UJC GA participants are Hillel stakeholders -- to witness the important work we are doing under the most adverse circumstances imaginable: a campus literally under enemy fire. No plenary session or panel discussion could convey the sincerity, the enthusiasm, or the courage of these students, professionals, faculty and community members. I commend the UJC for having the foresight to make this opportunity possible.
Wayne L. Firestone is president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Read about previous days' activities.