When Brandon Schuster left home for the University of South Florida (USF), it was his first culture shock. He was leaving the warm Jewish community where he had grown up and felt confident. For the first time, Brandon became friends with non-Jewish students and sat alongside classmates who had never met a Jew before. In searching for his place at USF, Brandon became involved with Hillel and Israel activism.
USF Hillel had strong professional leadership in Ed Rosenthal, Executive Director for Hillels of the Florida Suncoast, Anat Valdman, Director of Jewish Education & Programs, and Israel Fellow Idit Hacham, along with a growing Jewish student body which allowed for a complete Hillel turnaround. Brandon’s eyes light up when he speaks of Hillel. He shares, “Anat and Idit truly fostered a large, vibrant, dynamic and Jewish family on campus with their motherly and sisterly personalities and passions that they contribute to each program and class they offer.” In May 2012, Brandon embarked on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, and his first encounter with the land and the people strengthened and justified his bond with Israel. He left with a hunger for more and the drive to be even more involved back at home.
Brandon returned to USF as the incoming Hillel president for 2012-2013. Reflecting on the exciting year, Brandon notes: “we became one of the most successful Hillels in the country, from being a struggling Hillel. We won the “Activist Campus of the Year” award at the 2013 American-Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington DC. I personally was so proud to be a part of the amazing group of USF students who won this prestigious award, let alone help lead in these efforts. Our efforts not only changed the way we discussed this region of the world on campus, but we captured the attention of politicians and influential figures in Washington DC and right here in the state of Florida and within the Tampa Bay community, through our hard work and dedication for the state of Israel on our campus. Being President of USF Hillel has been one of my proudest accomplishments.”
Coinciding with his busy class schedule, his presidential role at Hillel, and applying for summer internships, Brandon was also on the lookout for how to return to Israel. When he met a representative from the University of Haifa at Shabbat dinner, he learned about studying abroad in Israel. With only a week until the application deadline, Brandon was able to complete the paperwork to spend a semester at the University of Haifa International School. His luck continued when, over the summer, Ed Rosenthal, called with exciting news – Brandon had been awarded a $5000 scholarship for his semester in Haifa. “I couldn’t believe it. I just stared at the phone for a while,” recounted Brandon, on how he made his dream a reality. Brandon was the first recipient of the USF Presidential Passport Scholarship for studying in Israel.
Brandon is currently studying Israel and Middle East Studies in Haifa, and living on campus with five Israeli roommates. “I love it” he says, of living with Israeli students, “they help me with my homework and we teach each other Hebrew and English.” While addressing a group of visiting professionals from the United Kingdom, Brandon shared his experience in Haifa, “You always read about and see photos about the history that took place in this land. Instead of just learning about it, I am now living and seeing where the history happened.”
At the conclusion of the semester in January, Brandon will head back to USF to finish his senior year. He plans on returning to USF Hillel to “build a legacy for years to come, of students having the same opportunities and experiences like I have been so grateful to have. I hope that more students at USF will have the chance to study abroad in this beautifully diverse country, especially as our Hillel is growing stronger and stronger. By doing so, I hope it can help them discover many different aspects of their Jewish identities.”