By Alicia Cohen
When I first heard about the Jewish Agency for Israel's Global Israel Professionals for Student Encounters (GIPSE) program last spring, I was immediately interested in finding a way to attend this conference. Of course, one of the biggest draws was the location, Jerusalem, as I had been looking for a way to get back to Israel for quite some time. But what was most intriguing to me was that GIPSE was not a strictly Hillel or North American program; participants at GIPSE would be coming from all over the world. For a long time, I have felt that Jewish communities are absorbed in their own community and Israel, but they overlook the other Jewish communities around the world. I saw GIPSE as a way for me to establish relationships with professionals from all over the world, as well as learning new ways of looking at the way we do Israel programming at Hillel at California State University – Northridge.
The 10 days of GIPSE were packed full of learning and exploring. One of the comments that many of the participants made was that when we did visit sites, most of them were not the "typical" places that we tend to go on trips to Israel. When we did go to familiar locations, the way that we talked about it was quite unique. For example, we spent a few hours at a soup kitchen, Carmei Ha'ir, located near the Machne Yehuda market. Carmei Ha'ir is well-known for its approach to its clientele. From the street it looks like any other small restaurant – people come in, sit down and order from a short menu. Volunteers serve their meal in multiple courses. Everyone who enters Carmei Ha'ir is treated with dignity, which makes a huge difference. Over its short existence, the kitchen has seen people lifted by the way they are treated at Carmei Ha'ir, and this confidence has helped them to get back on their feet.
Many of the best minds in Israel education came to teach and meet with our group, each with their own style, thoughts and approaches to modern Israel. We had many discussions about the different ways we can spark interest and cultivate understanding about Israel in our students, and how that can lead to strengthened visions of Israel in the community. Our conversations opened my eyes not only to new ways to think about Israel programming, but they also caused me to start thinking about all of the programming we do, and how it could be changed and revitalized. We thought a lot about how to bring different layers into a program that would not only enrich the program itself, but attract students from multiple target areas. We visited an exhibit in Tel Aviv to explore togetherness, the group and the kibbutz in Israeli collective consciousness. For some of us, we connected to the artwork itself; for others, it was the underlying themes of family and community, and for others it was the contrast to the glorified perception of kibbutz life that is part of our collective memory. Despite our varied backgrounds and connection points, as a group we all connected to not only the exhibit, but also to one another. I hope to find ways to create multi-layered programming such as this to further strengthen the communities that I work with at CSUN Hillel.
The ideas I have for new Israel programming, and the connections that I have made to communities in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, England, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela, helped to recharge my energy and enthusiasm for all of the work I do at CSUN Hillel. Hearing about the marketing strategies in Chile and Uruguay, the programming in Argentina and Australia and the struggles of the Jewish community in Brazil and South Africa was intriguing. There are a lot more similarities among the international communities than we tend to think about, and we can all learn from one another's successes. Whether it will come through creating international initiatives with my GIPSE colleagues or local projects as we start a new school year, I am excited to see how I will integrate what I learned at GIPSE into the program here at CSUN Hillel.
Alicia Cohen is the senior Steinhardt JCSC fellow at California State University – Northridge Hillel.