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Firestone: Defending Israel and Honoring Avraham Infeld

by Hillel News |Jun 04, 2010|Comments

(Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone discussed recent events in Israel and Hillel's global work during remarks to Hillel's Renaissance Award event honoring Avraham Infeld on the campus of Columbia University on June 2. Below is the text of his remarks.)

Hillel leaders.
Hillel Board of Directors Chair Bea Mandel, honoree Avraham Infeld, Board of Governors Chair Randall Kaplan, President Wayne L. Firestone.
Before I talk about Avraham, Bea Mandel, chair of Hillel's Board of Directors, Randall Kaplan, chair of our Board of Governors, and I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to our dinner chairs, Karen and Neil Moss, and vice-chair Carol Smokler, for the tremendous investment in time and energy that they have made in order to make this dinner a success. Very often the term "dinner chair" is an honorific title. That was not the case tonight. Thank you.

We also want to thank the professional team who attended to the countless details of this evening and brought it to fruition.

Tonight we are joined by many of our leaders and community partners. I would like to recognize our dear friends from the Jewish Federations of North America, Chair Kathy Manning and CEO Jerry Silverman. I also want to welcome UJA-Federation of New York Executive Vice President and CEO John Ruskay. Our growing partnership with JFNA and the UJA-Federation is a model for how Jewish organizations can and should collaborate. Hillel --representing tens of thousands of Jewish students of New York and hundreds of thousands in North America, Latin America, Israel, and the former Soviet Union -- owes you a deep debt of gratitude.

I was reminded of the importance of our work last week, when I visited our 11 Hillels in Israel. One day during my visit, the entire country was locked down in shelters as part of a national emergency preparedness drill. It did not matter if people were politically left, right or center; religious or secular; Ashkenazi or Sephardi; age nine or age 99. The entire country prepared for the possibility of war.

In the last few days, many in this country and around the world have rushed to judge the IDF naval blockade. I know from the Israeli press that Israelis too are actively debating whether the IDF acted effectively. And this is no surprise; it is expected in a vigorous democracy. What is not debatable is the need for every country to have the right to self-defense. What is not debatable is that Israel has been and will continue to be central to Hillel and the Jewish people. What is not debatable is that we have the right and the responsibility in the Jewish community to provide Jewish students with the background, context, and love — ahavat Yisrael — that is required to put incidents such as this in perspective and to defend Israel against detractors.

Yes, our students confront Israel detractors on campus. Sometimes it is in the form of fellow-students, as we saw at Irvine. Sometimes it is in the form of their professors. But I am encouraged, not merely by the student victories in defeating divestment efforts at Berkeley, San Diego, and elsewhere. I am heartened by the Israel Fellows and Hillel staff around the world who empower this next generation of Jewish leaders.

Last week in Israel, I met Hillel students and staff from Syracuse, Arizona State, and San Francisco State at the end of their Birthright trips. They gave voice to the potential of this generation of communicators, collaborators, and community-builders that may prove to be the greatest asset in helping us to craft our future purpose and our people. They certainly can't do it alone, but we certainly can't deliver the future without engaging them in it. In a moment, we will ask each of you tonight to advance this sacred mission at your own tables and to experience the daily work of Hillel professionals around the world.

Today Hillel seeks nothing less than to help Jewish students to take ownership of their Jewish experience so that they will make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. We believe that in order to do so we must offer students meaningful Jewish experiences, during their formative odyssey period of emerging adulthood. This involves 4 distinctive elements: a positive Jewish memory, Jewish knowledge, Jewish self-confidence, and a deep appreciation of the Jewish people. Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are a meaningful Jewish experience. Alternative break trips to do social justice in a Jewish context are meaningful Jewish experiences. Learning with a Jewish educator on campus can be a meaningful Jewish experience.

It is not coincidental that Avraham Infeld led the Birthright Israel planning process. Or that he was president of Hillel when we formulated our new approach to Jewish engagement and meaningful Jewish experiences.

Avraham is an educator and an innovator who has contributed enormously to Hillel and to the Jewish people and as a teacher and a mentor to me. He has often done so behind the scenes, with little fanfare and with little desire for publicity. Despite his wonderful, outsized personality and his flair for the dramatic, Avraham's chief concern is that pintele yid, that little spark of Jewishness that is concealed even in the least-educated of Jews.

Tonight he will engage with us in his favorite role of Jewish learning, but before that we will be engaging in the time-honored Jewish practice of schmoozing. But it's schmoozing with a purpose: to bring light into the world.

Tonight at your table are Jewish students who have participated in Hillel activities at their schools. This is an opportunity to hear about their meaningful Jewish experiences and to share yours. What touched your Jewish soul? Was it a camp experience? A trip to Israel? A teacher? A historical event? What role is Hillel playing in creating meaningful Jewish experiences for these college students?

Through his words and his activities, my dear teacher, mentor and friend Avraham Infeld teaches us how to provide meaningful Jewish experiences that turn little sparks of Jewish identity into bright lights that illuminate the Jewish community and the world. Thank you, Avraham, and Yasher Koach.

Additional coverage:

JTA reports on the event.

Maxim Yudin remarks.

Randall Kaplan remarks.

Main Infeld page.

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