By Richard M. Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life
(Also published in the Jerusalem Post, May 28, 2002.)
A few weeks ago I sat with a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley talking about the challenges of celebrating one's Jewishness in the face of significant anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity. On their campus a brick had been thrown through the front door of the Hillel building and the words "Jews" was scrawled on the trash cans. While Jewish students commemorated Yom Hashoah in April, another group staged a massive anti-Israel protest and occupied a classroom building. The group that organized the rally was later temporarily suspended by the university.
Two weeks later I visited with students at The Ohio State University. The young people marched proudly through the center of campus, dancing and singing next to a chuppah that protected their new Torah scroll. I told the students that the Torah was the beginning of their Jewish story, a story that connects them to the people of Israel and the State of Israel, a story that awaits the chapters they themselves will write.
Two different campuses, a continent apart, one in confrontation, the other in celebration. Two campuses connected by their Jewish story.
This week we write an important new chapter in the Jewish story. More than 400 students from 111 campuses in the United States and Canada have traveled to Jerusalem for the five-day Hillel Advocacy Mission. These young people are our bnei meshek, the children we have seen grow up in our synagogues, day schools, camps, youth movements and summer Israel programs. Seventy-one got their first Israel experience through birthright israel. They have absorbed the message of our Jewish story, whether that message was transmitted through Abraham Isaac Kook, or Steven Wise, or A.D. Gordon, or Henrietta Szold. Raised in a variety of youth movements, they feel ideologically, passionately, and intimately connected to Israel. Their friends and family live in Israel. They listen carefully for news reports about every new terrorist outrage because they know those cafes, those street corners, those people.
The young people who have journeyed to Israel this week have literally been at the barricades this semester, defending Israel appropriately on each of their campuses. At some schools, reasoned dialogue has prevailed. At others, students have been thrust into a maelstrom of anti-Semitism. Hillel's Israel Advocacy Mission is intended to enhance their skills and understanding of the issues. And quite frankly, they are in Israel because this is where they want to be: Families join together in crises.
Just as the young people come from many different movements, so, too, does this mission represent a wonderful collaboration of Jewish organizations. Hillel brought together AIPAC, the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Jewish Agency for Israel, USD/Hagshama, the Ministry of Tourism and Hamagshimim/Hadassah in a united effort to educate a new generation of activists. This Mission was made possible by some of the leading philanthropists of our time: Edgar M. Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt, Leonard Abramson, and Ronald Lauder.
While in Israel they will learn about the thorny political issues that confront the country from leading experts of all backgrounds and opinions. They will learn in interactive ways the skills of advocacy that will be put to the test when they return home. The young people will visit the Knesset and meet with representatives of both the government and the opposition. They will conduct service projects around the country, including the clean-up of Har Herzl. As a condition of accepting this free trip, the students have pledged to take a leading role when they return to campus. They have already agreed to donate $180 of their $250 deposit to the UJC emergency Israel campaign.
Will Hillel's Advocacy Mission make a difference? Next semester 400 young people will return to campus with the skills they need to meet anti-Israel rhetoric head-on. They will know that no matter how isolated they may feel on their campus, they share a common love of Israel with 400 other student activists from a variety of ideological backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, these future leaders of the Jewish community will experience and remember how the Jewish community came together in a time of need. It is our fondest hope that this Mission will strengthen the people of Israel, the State of Israel and bring us closer to peace.