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Hillel Promotes Jewish Identity in Israel and Abroad

by Hillel News |Feb 23, 2011|Comments

From Yediot Achronot, Israel's largest daily newspaper.

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Hillel President and CEO Wayne L. Firestone.

The American Jewish student organization Hillel has been in operation since the beginning of the last century, to strengthen Jewish identity on campus. Hillel has recently come to understand that Israeli university students also need help in finding their identities as Jews and members of a community and are now working on Israeli campuses as well.

The president of Hillel, the Jewish student organization in America, Wayne Firestone, woke up one morning to find new challenges facing him. The largest Jewish student organization in the world, which offers services to more than 500 colleges in the US, including 200 with a Hillel presence, must contend with a troublesome reality in the past eight years. When Hillel was founded in 1923 at the University of Illinois by the local Jewish community, the vision of Hillel, which is named for the famous head of the Sanhedrin, Hillel the Elder, was to enrich the lives of Jewish students on campus through cultural and social justice activities. Through the years, activities have grown to include a focus on Jewish tradition and the students' connection with Israel. But in recent years, in light of the harsh criticism of Israel on many university campuses, Hillel staff have come to understand that the time has come to change their strategy.

Jewish identity in Israel.

Firestone (46), an attorney who gave up a legal career for the sake of working in the Jewish world, returned to the United States from Israel nine years ago and began working for Hillel. In the first three years he visited many campuses and spoke with the people he met. "I began to understand that this is not a matter of the occupation here on the agenda, but a process of delegitimization of Israel. Imams were visiting the campuses and were speaking against Israel, the Westboro Church organization, which doesn't like Jewish or Muslims, demonstrated a presence on campus," says Firestone, who has been a member of Hillel's strategic planning committee since 2005. Although he was educated in the lap of American pluralism, which is open to hear any opinion and to respect every stream of Judaism, Firestone felt that the time had come for counteraction. "Members of various organizations come to campuses not to talk about the peace process but to explain that Israel should be punished for the occupation and for racism," says Firestone about activity he identifies as anti-Israel. "They tell the students that they must boycott Israeli universities, and demand that the Batsheva band may not perform in America. At UCLA a group of professors waved signs calling for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Last spring, activists in Berkeley and San Diego, CA began to organize the wording of propositions for their colleges to divest from all Israeli assets. The proposals gained a lot of support, although they were ultimately defeated. Our job is to guarantee that all Jewish students on campus can experience and build a relationship with the Jewish people in a safe and supportive atmosphere," he says.

What other activities against Israel are there on campus?

One trend we have seen is when off-campus groups come to perform some symbolic act that conveys the message that the State of Israel is not lawful. A second trend that we saw last semester was to disrupt lectures and meetings of senior Israeli visitors who come to visit, such as Netanyahu's visit in New Orleans. There have also been attempts to boycott Sabra brand hummus in campus cafeterias, which we managed to thwart in the end. Most of these activities take place in the spring, when the weather is nice. Nakba Day, for example, is in the spring, and next month (March) they will proclaim an Israeli Apartheid Week in New York. Last year they marked Apartheid Week on 12 American campuses. On Saturday night I was at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where a group held a program called Never Again for Anyone, which equated the Holocaust with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians."

How do you respond?

"We recently advertised a guidebook for our centers in the US and for other Jewish organizations, in which we outlined who we are not prepared to cooperate with on campus. In general, we do not establish ties with any organization that does not recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in secure and permanent borders. We do not cooperate with any organization that demonizes Israel or that disrupts speeches by our guests of honor. The day after the event at Rutgers, I met with a group of Jews and non-Jews, Democratic and Republican members of Congress, and representatives from the consulate in New York. We sat in a room on campus with about 100 people, and I told our students that I am very proud of them for their ways of dealing with the anti-Israel campaign. Seven years ago there was a divestment campaign on that campus, with a call to boycott Israeli companies. Hillel went out, but in the end the students responded to our message on campus. On Succos, Rutgers students built a succah on the tennis court and held a two-day conference called "Israeli Inspiration." Various speakers told about the inspiration they'd received from Israel, the dialogue was positive, and 700 students came to enjoy the very positive energy. Age 18-30 is when people are shaping their identity, a period of life when Jewish students usually decide about their Jewish identity, and we try to help them connect to their Jewish identity. Every country makes mistakes, but Israel is built on a basis of democracy, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, and freedom for the press to criticize the government. It is impossible to say that this is not a democratic country."

West Coast campuses are harder

"This summer we had to train the staff, to prepare them for the near future. We formed partnerships with other Jewish organizations, and the staff was trained in how to build campus-wide support. With the Jewish Agency, we doubled the number of sh'lihim (emissaries) on campuses on the West Coast, where there have been confrontations already for several years. We are talking about 20-year old adults who serve as our ambassadors. They help organize events for students who come back from a visit to Israel, to initiate events that show the cultural or technological aspects of Israel. We also work on presenting the human side of the Israeli soldier; studies show that personal contact with soldiers is what most impresses Taglit participants."

And this works?

"Our projects work much better than anti-Israel propaganda. 80-90% of the campus population connects with our cultural events: an Israeli film festival, a performance of HaDag Nahash or Idan Reichel, who are very popular on campus. Ahinoam Nin, who sings with a Palestinian partner, Mira Awad, is also well-received. Israeli literature attracts people, the novels of David Grossman, the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Also the open attitude towards homosexuals in Israel and the fact that they serve in the army, works in Israel's favor, whenever students talk about human rights. All of this is just a part of what any Yediot Acharonot reader knows.

"We adapt ourselves to the young generation, who grew up with Internet, YouTube, Wikileaks, in a world where there are no secrets and all data is accessible. This is a generation that fully expects to receive information very quickly and with total transparency. They see that Israel is a democracy, that Israeli society comprises artists, intellectuals, kibbutznikim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Ethiopians, etc. - a society of people from all over the world - so how can anyone call it apartheid? That's simply incorrect and based on misinformation."

The global Hillel family

Regular readers of this magazine might be surprised to discover that the person now heading Hillel in Israel is none other than David Borowich, a very active leader from the Jewish and Israeli scene in New York, who like Firestone, was listed as one of the top 50 influential Jews in the US. Borowich's original plan, when he made aliyah just over a year ago, was to do business in Israel, with business hours adjusted to an American schedule, but David, who changed his name to David Ya'ari, reveals that it took him about eight months to come to the conclusion that he felt more passionate about work in the Jewish world instead of business. Ya'ari rented a house in Reut, next to Modi'in, where he moved with his wife Sivan and their twins.

In Reut he found an inviting community of army veterans, many of whom invited his family over for coffee. But he also found that the family customs that he had nurtured in New York, of visiting the synagogue every Shabbat, had disappeared from his life. "Here the prayers are short," he explains, "you enter, pray, and leave; there is a limited sense of community. It's difficult to connect to the spiritual side of religion in Israel. People want to go out on Shabbat, because they do not have Sunday as a day off, so the spiritual element is not as easily developed." At the same time, Ya'ari also internalized the fact that in Israel there is a limited culture of philanthropy and lay leadership, at least not like the one that flourishes in New York.

All this, in addition to the fact that he understood that if he would continue to focus only on business he would only likely be able to return to the Jewish world in a serious way when he'd retire, helped him respond positively to Wayne Firestone's offer to lead Hillel Israel. Ya'ari has known Firestone for almost a decade through his inexhaustible work in the Jewish world in New York. He consulted with his wife about the job offer and their shared desire to work towards tikkun olam (repairing the world), and she gave him her blessing.

His work as Director General of Hillel Israel is carried out at the organization's offices in Har HaTzofim Jerusalem, but he loves to take the staff on visits around the country, for example to Tel Hai College. Prior to his role, Ya'ari had not been aware that there were active Hillel centers in Israel, but it didn't take him long to get to know the territory and get excited. To answer the question of why there's a need for Hillel in Israel, a country where the majority of students are Jewish in any case, Ya'ari talks about Jewish identity, the reason in his words that brought him to Israel. Hillel Israel, he says, was established in 1952 with the goal of supporting Jewish-American students who came from abroad to study in Israel. But when the second intifada broke out in 2000, the number of American students sharply decreased and only Israelis were left.

Ya'ari: "Suddenly Hillel understood that we have an asset, over 200,000 Israeli students distributed among more than ten campuses, with whom we can work. That's a lot more than the number of Jewish students in New York, for example. There, the number of Jewish students in all the universities comes to several thousand, but, just in Tel Aviv University alone there are 32,000 Jewish students. In spite of the relatively large number of Jewish students in Israel, the reality is that many students in Israel finish high school without having had many Jewish experiences. They are not familiar with the holidays; they learn the Bible as if it were the history of ancient Rome and not our national story. And when they serve in the Israeli army, it strengthens their sense of being Israeli, which is very different from strengthening their Jewish identity; it's a different culture. If we don't strengthen Jewish identity, in another few generations people will not understand why they should live here and continue the traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation. If the State of Israel is not a Jewish state, there is no reason for me to live here."

But Israel is now a more Jewish state than ever, the religious dominate in politics

"Due to today's religious coercion, people move away from religion, the lack of separation between religion and the state causes a distancing between the religious and the secular. We have to work with both sides, the secular elements of the population must understand that hareidim are their brothers, and the hareidim must find a common cause with the secular group, without dictating who is a Jew and determining what is considered conversion and what isn't.

"The goal of Hillel is to find the middle road, the middle road of Maimonides, a path between hareidim and the secular. The two most positive things today for strengthening the State of Israel are governmental reform and strengthening Jewish identity among the population."

What is Hillel Israel doing to strengthen Jewish identity?

"We are looking for the most creative ways to involve Israeli students in our programs. We help students find a way to become interested in their Jewish identity and to translate that into action. As an example, one of our programs called Yedidi haShachachta?! (Speaking Poetry) brings Israeli rock stars like Kobi Oz, Eran Tsur, Shlomi Shaban, Din Din Aviv, to talk about Jewish piyut (traditional poetry and music). They sing Jewish piyutim with more traditional paytanim (Jewish singers) and interact with the audience, some of whom delve more deeply into it. There is so much depth to our faith, and yet many Israelis are not familiar with Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). When there is little connection to our foundations, many travel to India for a year looking for spirituality."

And how are your initiatives received by Israeli students?

"We operate at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion, Technion, Tel Hai College, Sapir College, IDC Herzliya, Emek Yezreel and Haifa University. We are usually welcomed warmly on campuses, but recently we received an e-mail from someone at Haifa University who asked why an initiative of ours had to have a specifically Jewish context, why there isn't equality for all. We wrote to her that what makes Hillel special is that we do not reject Arabs or any other minority that wants to come and study or attend our events, and that she too is welcome at our Shabbat meals. There are Jews in Israel who have a problem with their identity. They do not feel proud to be Jewish. They look at what goes on in politics and feel distanced from their identity. There are also professors in Israel who support the delegitimization of Israel; Professors from Haifa University, Ben-Gurion, and other places who think that they have to ostracize Israel. That depresses me and reminds me that we can at times be are our own worst enemies.

So what is your vision?

It is time to invest in our nation's soul. I believe that Hillel can be a platform for change. I'd like to see a Hillel center on every Israeli campus. One of the visions is to find a bridge that will bring the young generation of Jewish students from around the world together. We have developed a wonderful pilot with Hillel students from Kiev University, Baruch College, and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. It's a project in which students work together and visit one another's countries. In addition, we can find a way where Israelis can help Americans fight against the delegitimization of Israel. On June 20th, we will hold a first gala celebration to honor the outgoing Director General of Hillel at Hangar 11 in the Tel Aviv port. It is ultimately important that students feel part of the same family, the global Hillel International family."

For the original article in Hebrew: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4026987,00.html

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