Typical Israeli street scenes involve such cultural classics as falafel and hummus, hookahs and the Middle Eastern rhythms of doumbek. But to enjoy it all, you typically have to travel there. Now, one program is bringing Israel right to North American students — such as hosting singer-songwriter Idan Raichel as part of a celebration of all things Israel at George Mason University.
The Israel Fellows program was started by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has partnered with Hillel International since 2003. Raz Tidhar is one such emissary, known in Hebrew as a shlicha, sent by the agency to develop Israeli content for student activities at the Hillel-serving campuses throughout Montreal.
“My job is mainly to make good connections with students,” says Tidhar, one of 75 such Israel Fellows to staff campuses in North America. “I see my job as bringing my Israel to the students.”
Israel Fellows act as a resource for Jewish students curious about Israel and participate in Birthright trips. Above all, they represent a living link between students and Israeli society.
Soon after arriving last fall, Tidhar brought to Montreal a quintessential Israeli celebration: “White Night in Tel Aviv.”
“It’s just a party to come to be together,” she says.
Five hundred students showed up to White Night, a big enough sign of success that Tidhar decided to throw another one in the spring.
Israeli programming is something of a specialty at many campuses, including the celebration of Israel at George Mason in Fairfax, Va.
“These programs are meant to present Israel on campus as a country that is more than what we read in the newspapers and in the headlines,” explains Mason Hillel executive director Ross Diamond. “Often, Israel is portrayed as a black and white country that has one issue, which is the conflict, and our role on campus is to educate students and present Israel beyond the conflict, because it’s a country that’s rich with culture and is exciting to be a part of.”
Diamond also brought Persian Israeli pop singer Rita to campus last year for a talk and performance in Farsi and Hebrew that had people dancing in the aisles.
“Students were blown away by her diversity. They didn’t understand the story of Israel as this complicated place that has people from countries all over the world, and this was a little piece to add more context and information for them to understand more about what Israel is as a country,” says Diamond.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Israel Fellow Vered Juhl’s role is important not only in bringing new sides of Israel to students, but also in serving as that much-needed connection between Jewish life here and Jewish life in Israel.
“Vered is the reason I got involved with Israel on campus,” says Pittsburgh freshman and social work major Avigail Schneiman. She added that while she was growing up, Israel seemed more abstract and far away, but working with Juhl has made her want to be more active on the issue.
Lisa Armony, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, says that Lihi Gordon, the Israel Fellow at California State University, Fullerton and two other Orange County campuses, has done a bang-up job making “Israel alive and relevant to students.”
Gordon, who holds an M.A. in diplomacy from Tel Aviv University, “engages students by running discussion groups about Israeli culture, society and current events, screening Israeli films and programs and more,” says Armony. “She also serves as an adviser to pro-Israel campus groups and to Hillel’s student chair of Israel programming.”
Nearby, UC Irvine’s Hillel and Gordon have hosted Israeli and Palestinian speakers such as Palestinian peace activist Mohammed Dajani and retired Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak; brought Israeli performers to campus such as Idan Raichel; and thrown Israeli-themed parties with Israeli DJs to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
This spring, UCI will host the Idan Cohen Dance Company.
Idan Raichel also performed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, at a program co-sponsored by Hillel and the Black Student Union, says Amir Bavler, the local Hillel’s Israel Fellow. “My agenda is to expose Israel to Jewish and non-Jewish students. I want them to see that Israel isn’t just a conflict.”
And according to his students, he’s gone above and beyond — becoming an integral part of Hillel and Israel-related groups on campus as well as in students’ lives.
“We’ve worked very closely,” says Johns Hopkins senior Michael Weiss, who is majoring in international studies. “I no longer consider him just a professional mentor, but a close friend.”
“He’s so passionate, and his passion really infects all of us,” says Daphna Varadi, a sophomore public health major at Johns Hopkins. “It’s contagious, you know? I can’t really imagine him not being here.”
When Bavler accompanied some students to Israel, including Varadi, he even opened his family’s home to them, giving them a real taste of life in Israel.
Nearby, at Towson University, Israel Fellow Lee Cohen says her job is “to educate and be a resource for students. I help them work out their Jewish identities. I’m here to answer their questions — anything Israel related.”
One of her projects is a leadership program. Students meet biweekly to learn about Israel and plan projects to lead. Another is the year-old Jews and Muslims group, or JAM.
“We focus on peaceful dialogue,” she says. Monthly events take place in a “safe space.”
Back at Mason, Diamond says he is excited about bringing more Israel experiences to campus, building off programs such as Made in Tel Aviv that Diamond says was organized to give students the taste and flavors of Tel Aviv without needing to get on a plane. The event featured a cooking demonstration by Israel chef Janna Gur and a presentation about the Israeli hip hop and music scene by Israeli DJ Eyal Rob.
Diamond says the programming is not just for Jewish students but presents an opportunity to show another side of Israel to the broader community. For example, when Rita came to campus, the Bahá’í Faith and Persian student groups were invited to the concert.
“The goal of these programs is not to serve just the Jewish community,” he says, “but to serve the campus as a whole for anyone who is interested in this land that is full of history and meaningful for many world cultures and religions.”