Editor and Publisher of The New York Jewish Week
Last Thursday night, more than 450 college students attending the annual Hillel student leaders' assembly at Camp Moshava in the Pocono Mountains studied a Jewish text together, aloud.
As the paired-up study partners took turns reading to each other, and discussing, several classic rabbinic passages about martyrdom - when it is commanded and when not - and their voices filled the vast hall, a lay leader walked over to Richard Joel, the professional head of the international Jewish campus organization, and noted, "You've given me two amazing sights this year, Richard. One was the view of the Old City in Jerusalem [during a mission in May] and the other," he said, pointing to the scene around them, "is this."
Joel smiled with obvious pride at the assemblage, where hundreds of students from North America, and dozens from Hillels in the former Soviet Union, South America, Europe and Israel, came together for six days to get to know each other, celebrate their Jewishness, and learn leadership skills that will help them when they return to campus next week.
These were many of the best and brightest, a largely self-selected group of student leaders eager to spend long days in mini-courses ranging from the history of Zionism to creating effective social programs to match their school's needs. But everyone was aware of the stakes at hand.
It is no secret that college campuses are at the center of the pro-Palestinian assault on Israel in America. Much has been written and discussed about how Jewish students face an uphill battle, often intimidated by aggressive demonstrations, debates and accusations from anti-Israel activists, including professors, focusing on Israel as a brutal occupier. Many Jewish students, even those with strong empathy for the Jewish state, feel confused and defensive about the facts and charges.
One sign that the leaders of the Jewish establishment have come to recognize the campus as a priority was their presence at this year's Hillel conference. Among the top professionals who addressed the students were David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Steve Hoffman of the United Jewish Communities, Hannah Rosenthal of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein's impassioned 45-minute address on Thursday urged the students to learn the lessons of history and embrace the challenges and rewards of Jewish life. "You are our gadflies, you can prod the establishment with more vigor and energy," he said. "You'll be wrong at times," he observed, "but don't worry, more often you'll be right. And there is no reward greater than knowing you helped change the world."
But such change can be difficult. In a session I had with about 25 students on pro-Israel advocacy in their campus newspapers, just about every one said they felt under attack, to varying degrees, on their campuses. They said their school papers often featured opinion pieces highly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, and while they felt compelled to respond, they often were hesitant, either because of a lack of confidence about their arguments or a fear of being publicly identified as pro-Israel, or both.
Several mentioned professors, including Jewish ones, who spoke out against Israel in class.
While encouraging them to learn the facts, hone their writing skills, and seek support from Hillel and other Jewish organizations, I recognized that these students and their peers are truly on the front lines in this struggle to confront anti-Israel propaganda, and worse.
We need to intensify our efforts on their behalf, and though Hillel has been criticized in some quarters for failing to provide sufficient ammunition in this struggle, the truth is that there is plenty of blame to go around. Parents, schools and organizations have taken for granted that succeeding generations of American Jews will feel a strong affinity for and be knowledgeable about Israel. But instilling moral confidence requires education, not just osmosis.
Hillel, which has been rejuvenated under Richard Joel's leadership the last 14 years, believes that the best way to support the Jewish state is to let students know they are Jewish, and feel good about it. That is why it continues to promote and market free 10-day group missions, through birthright israel, even though fear of Mideast violence has drastically reduced the numbers of participants this year.
Having Israeli participation at the conference helped strengthen the bonds between students. A dramatic moment came when Osnat Zamir of Hebrew University told the group that the night before, gathered in a large hall for a session, she began to worry why there were no security guards, then realized she was not at home. "It's not simple for us to live in Israel now," she said tearfully, thanking everyone for their support and concern.
Not all of the conference focused on Israel, though, or was defensive in nature, since exploring positive means of Jewish expression was an integral component. A highlight for me was seeing the level of religious pluralism that is part of the Hillel culture. Standing at a spot in a wooded area of the camp I could hear the students praying at the separate Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist services. Listening to the blending of voices, I wondered where, after college, they will find this combination of tolerance and cooperation again in our community.
We need to do more for our Jewish students on campus, it's true, and there is much they can do for us as well.