This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
Jewish students around the world have returned to their classrooms, their dorms and their Hillels. Undoubtedly, they have big plans for spring semester. Hillel has big plans, too, primarily in the critical work of Israel engagement and education.
Last semester, Hillel campus professionals and Hillel International’s new Israel education department, Hinenu, proudly supported students as they won steady victories against an organized campaign to demonize Israel and pro-Israel students on campus. With the strength of their communities, student leaders defeated five of the six proposed anti-Israel resolutions in student governments.
It is unfortunate – but necessary – that Hillel professionals and pro-Israel students need to invest time and energy defending Israel against the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of BDS supporters. No serious friend of peace between Israel and the Palestinians believes BDS will serve their goals. And it is quite clear that the BDS movement is uninterested in actually solving any problem – unless that problem is defined as the existence of a Jewish State. BDS supporters regularly intimidate anyone who dares to oppose them. They shout down speakers at public events, disrupt recruitment efforts by pro-Israel campus organizations, and otherwise turn the campus into their own circus of hate.
Because of these activities, Hillel has had to redouble its pro-Israel advocacy and education programs within its larger mission to create an environment where Jewish students feel safe and confident to explore their faith and build enduring connections to the Jewish State.
Our focus is, as it always has been, on education – the ultimate mission of any serious campus organization. We devote significant resources to helping students learn about Israel’s rich diversity – its multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, its Western system of civil rights, its entrepreneurial economy, and its remarkable cultural breadth and depth.
Fortunately, Hillel is not alone in building an affinity for Israel. We are glad to work with many organizations, especially our partners at Israel on Campus Coalition, AIPAC, Stand With Us, and others.
And while educational programs are important, Hillel believes that opportunities to interact with Israelis can have a far greater impact. We are the largest recruiter for Taglit-Birthright Israel, thereby bringing tens of thousands of Jewish young adults from North America and the former Soviet Union, to Israel for the first time. More than 100,000 college students have gone on Hillel-led Birthright trips to Israel. Just this month 75 Hillel students from colleges and universities nationwide traveled to Israel to bring an arts festival called Start South to the residents of Sderot and other communities in southern Israel besieged by the summer war with Gaza.
Hillel brings to campus Israeli diplomats, authors and thought-leaders for discussions about Israeli democracy and civil society. We train and place Jewish Agency Israel Fellows on nearly 100 campuses nationwide annually. This semester we are hosting the first delegation of Israeli Hillel students who will visit Hillels across the country, bringing the real faces of Israelis to campus.
This year we created an opportunity to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute for 70 students from four campuses. We are currently working with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on Hillel’s Resetting the Table Fellowship, which teaches diverse students from six West Coast campuses how to build positive dialogue about Israel across political differences. And we are working with Onward Israel, Yahel, and Repair the World on an experience called Onward Israel Negev Service Corps for students to pursue service and social action opportunities in Israel.
For our campus professionals, Hinenu conducts communications and strategy training sessions. Senior Hillel professionals and lay leaders will participate in an inaugural training trip in Israel later this month. And, for the third consecutive year, Hartman Campus iengage Fellowships are being offered to 15 professionals who will study in Israel throughout the year.
We are empowering a new generation of students to strengthen the Jewish community’s relationship with Israel and stand up for the Jewish state. As recently as last week, a parent sent me a video of nearly 500 Hillel students on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip over winter break singing and dancing at a Havdallah ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the end of Shabbat. It was a touching display of their enthusiastic connection to their faith and the Jewish homeland.
Our programs are working. When we have a chance to engage with students, they become the best pro-Israel advocates on campus, precisely because it comes from the heart and the brain. They are increasingly confident in their sense of belonging, in their connection to the global Jewish community and to the Jewish homeland. When Israel is under attack they do not wait to be asked to step up; they ask themselves and their mentors at Hillel what they can do to help.
This spring, we will continue to spend time defeating BDS and addressing challenges that arise. Doing so is central to our mission of connecting Jewish college students to Jewish life, Jewish learning and the Jewish State. Every day, Hillel works diligently to build the future of the Jewish people.
Eric Fingerhut is the President and CEO of Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.