For Oded Frid, Zionism is not just an idea -- it's been his way of life. The son of Argentineans who made aliyah as young adults, he was instilled with a great appreciation and love for Israel, and as the new Israel Fellow at Pittsburgh Hillel, he encourages his American students to celebrate and advocate for the Jewish homeland.
"I want to show them that there's more to Israel than what you see on the news," he said.
Frid is part of the Israel Fellows Program, a new partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel 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. After one week of training in Jerusalem and another at Hillel's 2004 Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly in Pennsylvania, the fellows spread out to serve 19 campuses in the United States and Canada for the 2004-05 academic year.
Frid, a native of Herzliya, was in the middle of his political science program at Tel Aviv University when the Jewish Agency approached him about becoming an Israel Fellow. Active in student life at his university, he found the idea of educating American students about Israel to be appealing. After an initial brainstorming meeting with students from both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, Frid has already put together a five-part strategy for the year, focusing on Israel education, Israel trips, social activities, Israeli advocacy and community outreach.
With registration for the winter birthright israel trips underway, Frid is focusing on recruitment, and he hopes that after the participants return to campus next semester, they will remain involved in Hillel and become leaders for Israeli advocacy.
"I want to use birthright as an engagement tool for Hillel rather than just a program in and of itself," he said.
In the coming weeks, Frid is planning a video conference between students and Amran Mitzna, the former mayor of Haifa, to discuss Jewish-Arab relations in the city.
Like Frid, Noam Ben-Tov, the Israel Fellow at the University of Florida Hillel, also hails from Herzliya and is a student a Tel Aviv University. And after being on campus for just one month, he is also knee-deep in programming ideas.
Along with Hebrew conversation classes and discussions about Israeli current events, Ben-Tov is planning a Shekel Festival, a battle-of-the-bands competition inspired by a similar concept in Israel. Ben-Tov explained that a number of popular Israeli bands come from the working-class town of Sderot, and when they tour the country, they only charge a one-shekel admission fee to concertgoers in other disadvantaged cities. For the Shekel Festival, he plans to charge $1 admission fee, with all proceeds going to benefit Sderot.
Beyond Hillel, Ben-Tov also attends the activities of other student organizations and offers a personal point of view on topics related to Israel and the Middle East. He enjoys the diversity of the University of Florida campus and the opportunities it affords him to learn more about different cultures.
"I want to feel like I'm a worldly person, and Hillel gives me that opportunity," he said.
At Brooklyn College Hillel, Israel Fellow Alex Selsky shares Russian roots with many of the students. He moved from Ufah, a city in central Russia, to Israel at age 16 to attend a special academy for Russian students. While studying for his business degree at the College of Management in Rishon L'Tzion, Selsky worked with new immigrant students as a cultural and social counselor, helping them adjust to life in Israel. After he graduated this summer, he followed the path of many counselors who become shlichim, emissaries who promote Israeli issues abroad. Being an Israel Fellow is an ideal position because working with students "is my home -- this is me," he said.
The first three weeks were difficult, Selsky said -- "New Yorkers speak very fast!" -- but he found a warm reception from the staff and students in Brooklyn.
"They accepted me with open arms. I was very wanted," he said.
Selsky will focus on the needs of the Russian students at Hillel, and he is planning an event where students can discuss the differences between being a Russian Jew in the United States and in Israel. He is putting together an exhibition for Sukkot called "My Personal Israel," which will display photographs of ordinary Israelis in everyday life, in contrast with the often violent images of Israel shown on TV, and he also advises the Israeli advocacy groups on campus.
"It's amazing to see people so dedicated to Israel," he said.
For Ayelet Zur, it was the right time to become an Israel Fellow. Having just completed her master's thesis in law and economics and serving as an economic adviser at the Knesset, the Haifa native jumped at the chance to join the staff at UCLA Hillel. Though classes are only starting this week, Zur has already met with returning students and is amazed at their commitment to Israel.
"Seeing students willing to give so much time and energy for Israel -- it makes my heart bigger every day," she said.
While at the Knesset, Zur worked with Michael Eitan, the chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, who is spearheading the effort to create a written Israeli constitution. She wants to involve students in the process by forming a group to discuss what they would like to see included in an Israeli constitution, and she is bringing Eitan to campus to speak about his work in early October.
Zur has enlisted Israeli actor Oren Rehany to help students plan the production of an Israeli play, and she has also partnered with a personal trainer from Israel to create a program combining physical fitness with spirituality and Israeli values. She hopes her innovative programming will engage new students to become involved in Hillel.
"Every student is here for a different reason," she said.
Reut Ekshtein is one of three Israel Fellows from last year's pilot program who decided to return to campus for an encore. As she begins her second year at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Hillel, Ekshtein, a former youth director at a home for troubled youth in Tel Aviv, is excited to educate more students about Israeli politics and culture.
"We have a very multicultural campus, but students often have a limited view of Israel," she said. "They don't know that Israel has a very vivid culture."
This year Ekshtein plans on continuing the popular Israeli film club, which regularly brought 40-60 students together to watch and discuss recent Israeli movies. She is also advising students on how to advocate for Israel through the campus newspaper, which often declines to cover pro-Israel events, such as this past spring's successful Israel Week activities.
Ekshtein is the voice of Israel not only for Hillel, but for the greater University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign communities. She recently spoke to law students about the role of women in the Israeli Defense Forces, and she also shared her culture with students at a Baptist church. Ekshtein hopes to work with other student groups this year to plan cross-cultural programming, and she is working with the Jewish federation in Chicago to bring students from neighboring universities together for an Israeli advocacy conference.
"I hear a lot of excitement about Israel from students," she said. "They love everything about it -- the food, the music, T-shirts with Hebrew. It's amazing."
The 14 other Israel Fellows serve Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach, Hartford Hillel Foundation, Vancouver Hillel Foundation, Texas Hillel Foundation, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Hillel, Rochester Area Hillel, London (Ontario) Jewish Campus Services, Greater Miami Hillel, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, San Francisco Hillel, Hillel at Davis and Sacramento, Kent State University Hillel, JSA University of Ottawa and University of Maryland Hillel.