Reprinted with permission from the Wayne Independent, August 21, 2003.
By Peter Becker
BERLIN TOWNSHIP - With the world news about Israel filled with bombings and shaken hopes, here in Wayne County every year several hundred Jewish college students from around the globe gather each summer to learn about their roots, their identity and calling to make a positive difference on the earth.
The week-long event began Tuesday at Camp Moshava, outside Honesdale. Close to 500 Jewish student activists are attending Hillel's 2003 Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly for five days of leadership training and Jewish celebration.
As their press release states, students participate in activities designed to help them lead their campus Jewish communities in everything from Israel activism to art, Jewish learning to social justice. Special guests include Jerusalem Report editor David Horovitz, artist Toby Kahn, director Aviva Kempner, and former White House Jewish Liaison Jay Footlik. Faculty for the conference comprises leading Jewish educators from around the world, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Andrew Davids co-director of the UAHC Youth Division.
They opened Tuesday night with Rap star Remedy of the Wu Tang Clan. Remedy, the stage name of Ross Filler, is renowned in Rap circles for his song "Never Again" which combines urban rhythms and Jewish pride in a defiant protest of the Holocaust. This is the first time that a major recording artist performed at the annual conference.
On Thursday, August 21, many of the world's leading philanthropists will gather at Leaders Assembly for the Renaissance Institute in which they will meet with students and professionals to discuss Jewish life on campus.
Jeffrey Rubin, Communications Director at the conference, said that this year they have an added thrust to counter-balance a decidedly anti-Israeli movement at Rutgers University, which he said is getting a lot of press. Known as the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, the group rallied two years ago at University of California, Berkeley, last year at the University of Michigan, and this October at Rutgers. Rubin said that the anti-Israel group has not come out in opposition to the suicide bombings against the Israeli people, and has pushed to divest funds from going to Israel.
In response this year, Jewish students through the Hillel chapter at Rutgers, plan a peaceful rally in the days leading up to the anti-Israel event.
Part of what the current conference will offer is to further those leadership skills in aiding Jewish students in speaking for their heritage and goals that promote Israel's good.
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life provides opportunities for Jewish students to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of over 500 regional centers, campus Foundations and Hillel student organizations. Hillel is working to provoke a renaissance of Jewish life.
According to the organization's Web site, Hillel's mission is to "maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews." Hillel actively seeks to engage uninvolved Jewish students on their own terms: to provide them with opportunities to "do Jewish" that are meaningful and appealing to them. Students are empowered to take responsibility for their Jewish identity, whether they wish to participate in a community service project, express themselves artistically, participate in a social event, engage in informal Jewish learning or attend religious services. Any student may participate in Hillel - no membership is required. Hillel is committed to a pluralistic vision of Judaism that embraces all movements.
At the conference there is a blend of Jewish denominations, from Conservative to Orthodox. Besides the United States, students attend from Latin America, eastern Russia, Israel, and other points. Many students, while Jewish, come with little upbringing in the Jewish faith and traditions, and are welcomed into the community.
A well attended session was just starting with David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Report. He stated that he hopes to give insight into what is happening in Israel, to better understand the anti-Israeli movement on campuses. The bottom line, he said, is that Israelis are desperate for peace. There is little optimism in the latest peace plan, with the actions of the Palestinians betraying any trust that they will honor peace. Tensions in Israel are high.
Barbara Szteinberg, a University of El Salvador student from Argentina, said that there are 200,000 Jews in her country. She said she expects to experience ideas from American Jews and from Hillels around the world. She is studying to be an English-Spanish translator.
International Relations major Fabian Mandel is from Uruguay and studies at ORT University. He stated he hopes to learn skills to bring back to serve the Jewish community in his land, which numbers 20,000.
Elizabeth Cohen is studying at SUNY Binghamton (NY), and just returned from an internship with the Jerusalem Post in Israel. From Staten Island, she hopes to move to Israel as a journalist. She remarked that the conference this week is an inspiration and feels like a part of a global community of her faith, not limited to just those on her campus.
Conditions in Israel are not all bad news. While at the Post she covered many arts and entertainment events.
University of Oregon senior Lach Litwer, stated that on campus the Jewish student feels pressured to absorb "into the woodwork" but at a conference like this, the students are energized and have a chance to express their Jewishness.
Kim Teplitzky, a journalism student at Temple University, commented that she hopes to get a better connection with her Jewish identity and to use it to promote awareness. Students have a chance to understand Judaism outside what they gained from their own family, she noted, and to network with others who have much in common.
Hillel organization is named for a Hebrew sage who moved from Babylonia to Palestine in the first century. The conference is named for the late Charles Schusterman, a Jewish business man and philanthropist who co-chaired Hillel's International Board of Governors.