For the first time this year, Rochester Area Hillel welcomes an Israel Fellow to its team. Inbar Zezak, a recent Hebrew University graduate, works with students at the University of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and SUNY College at Geneseo to cultivate their interest and understanding of Israeli culture and society.
The Israel Fellows Program is a new partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and birthright israel, which places outstanding young Israelis on key North American campuses for a year of educational service as Hillel staff members. The fellows focus on Israel programming on campus, working with birthright returnees and recruiting for Israel programs.
Zezak has worked with the Jewish Agency ever since she finished her military service in 1999, serving as a counselor at Jewish camps in the United States and England for four summers. Her college-age co-workers, many of whom had traveled to Israel and fell in love with the Jewish homeland, often lamented the lack of Israel education for students their age, and their sentiments inspired her to turn her attention to young adults.
"Students don't want to do just religious activities, and this is where I fit in," she said.
Growing up in the town of Azur outside Tel Aviv, Zezak's family is a blend of Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditions, thanks to her grandparents' roots in Poland and Tunisia. Since most American Jews trace their heritage to Eastern Europe, Zezak hopes to introduce them to the richness of Sephardi and Mizrachi culture with activities such as belly dancing and cooking classes.
"They can understand there is more to Israeli food than just falafel," she said.
The arts will play a central role in Zezak's programming. She is planning a screening of the Israeli movie "Company Jasmine," the first in-depth documentary about the Women's Field Officer Training School in the Israel Defense Forces. A former lieutenant in the Israeli Air Force, Zezak will partner with the film's producer, Dan Katzir, to talk about women's role in the Israeli armed forces. She is also organizing a group of student musicians to perform Israeli music, an activity that is both fun and educational.
"Music is a great way to learn Hebrew because it is very repetitive," she explained.
To honor the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Zezak is putting together a "wall of peace" at RIT, which will include information about Rabin's life and the peace process and display drawings that Israeli children drew after his death.
Zezak's future plans include graduate studies in genetic engineering when she returns to Israel, but for now she is enjoying getting to know her students and preparing for her first New York winter.
"I have never seen snow falling before, so it will be very exciting!" she said.