Members of Hillelujah, the Jewish a cappella group at Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, gathered onstage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this week to open the 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference with a powerful rendition of the National Anthem.
More than 4,000 students and over 100 Hillel professionals traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the three-day conference, which drew a total of 18,000 participants. The theme of this year’s confab: “Connected for Good.”
Hillel International President and CEO Eric D. Fingerhut was a featured panelist in a discussion about the Israel climate on campus. As Jewish students learn how to become effective leaders in college, they will ask challenging questions about Israel, he said.During the conference, Hillel International welcomed students, Hillel professionals and friends of the Hillel movement with a welcome reception at the Schusterman International Center. Hillel International also organized “Hillel Quad,” a Global Leadership Society reception for lay leaders and key stakeholders to learn about Israel engagement on campus.
“Let’s talk. Let’s debate. Let’s argue,” Fingerhut said. “There’s no conversation about Israel that we should be afraid of engaging in with our students. Let’s delve into the issues, not be afraid of them.”
In another session, Ariella Kissin, a Kenyon College sophomore and active Hillel student who identifies as a progressive Zionist, said she is focused on forming alliances with other progressive groups on campus. She came to Washington, D.C. to network and learn best practices in coalition building.
“It’s empowering to be in a space surrounded by like-minded students,” Kissin said. “It reminds me that I’m not alone.”
For Marvel Joseph, a Christian student of Haitian descent, finding someone who believed in his leadership capabilities helped him become a strong pro-Israel advocate at Florida Atlantic University.
That “someone” was Adam Kolett, executive director of Hillel of Broward and Palm Beach.
“Being pro-Israel on campus is only going to get harder,” said Joseph, 22, a former political intern for AIPAC. “And because of that, we must be proactive, not just reactive. Developing relationships with allies in other campus spaces is key.”
Over the course of the conference, other Hillel professionals served as guest speakers, including Sheila Katz, vice president of student engagement and leadership at Hillel International. During a panel on understanding and mobilizing Millennials, Katz addressed a question about intermarriage.
“At Hillel, we value students as Jewish regardless of how many Jewish parents they have,” Katz said. “Young Jews from interfaith families have a 100 percent seat at the table, not 50 percent. We celebrate the intersectional identities of young people.”
The annual gathering also hosted leaders such as Israel Resilience Party Chairman Benjamin “Benny” Gantz and NASA President James Frederick “Jim” Birdenstine.
Birdenstine took to the AIPAC stage to applaud Israel for its efforts to become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon. If the mission is successful, Israel's Beresheet spacecraft will become the first privately built vessel to reach the lunar surface at a fraction of the cost of most moon missions, Birdenstine said.
SpaceIL, the Israeli startup responsible for Beresheet, was represented by co-founder Yonatan Winetraub, who joined Birdenstine onstage.
“Our mission has shown us that when America and Israel dream, nothing is impossible,” Winetraub said. “We hope that wherever we go next, we’ll go together.”
During the conference, AIPAC recognized student leaders and professionals for their efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship on campuses across the nation.
University of Georgia was honored with the Duke Rudman Leadership Award for its Israel initiatives on campus. AIPAC also recognized five other campuses with its Activist of the Year Award: Ohio State University, University of Miami, Arizona State University, University of Southern California and Morehouse College.
The Ally of the Year Award was presented to Maiya Chard-Yaron, executive director of University of Texas, Austin Hillel, and Waga Brook, a Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Hillel.
Jordan Swidler, a freshman at University of North Texas, was a first timer at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. The 18-year-old said he’s eager to apply his new skills as an Israel advocate at UNT Hillel, where he serves as Israel engagement chair.
“Education is key,” Swidler said. “And I have a greater understanding of how to educate others about the relationship between the United States and Israel.”