Campus Insider: Pro-Israel Students are Showing Up to Learn and Lead



March 4, 2024

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Times of Israel on March 1, 2024.

There’s a perpetual fear in the Jewish community that we’re losing our young. That our youth are no longer connected to the values we seek to instill in them, including a love for Israel. This fear is expressed in headlines about small groups of vocal young Jews who protest against Israel and about individuals who reject the paths their parents and grandparents forged.

But in my role at Hillel International, I speak with thousands of Jewish college students every semester and I can tell you, without a doubt, that this is a generation of engaged, passionate, connected, and dedicated Jews and Zionists. And they are leading their peers toward a vibrant future.

This week, I moderated the “Zionist Heroes” panel discussion, with Sarah Hurwitz, Amanda Berman, and Jacki Karsh on the main stage of the Hillel Israel Summit, the seventh annual gathering of Israel-focused student leaders within the Hillel movement. As I looked around the room at over 800 young people who had flown to Atlanta from more than 200 campuses across North America, I saw the truth: Jewish students know that the way forward is through education, and they are showing up to learn.

Over 800 of the Hillel movement’s top student leaders showed up to the largest gathering of Jewish college students since before the COVID pandemic in 2020 to learn from world-class community leaders and subject matter experts. The student leaders showed up to broaden their horizons on Israel by hearing from diverse speakers, including Israeli government ministers, a former negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, a US Ambassador, a former leader of the Israeli left, civil society leaders focused on the intersection of Zionism and progressive spaces as well as Black-Jewish allyship, university presidents, award-winning journalists, influencers, and entrepreneurs. And the student leaders showed up to participate in high-level workshops and masterclasses, and to incubate ideas in a highly collaborative environment so they are prepared to lead in the ever-changing campus climate for Jewish students.

Accompanied by over 70 Jewish Agency for Israel Fellows — young Israelis who live and work with American students on a campus — students came from all of the Ivy League universities, from community colleges, from state universities and Big Ten schools, and from small liberal arts colleges. They came with different understandings about what it means to be a Zionist, and they brought as many perspectives as could fit in one hotel ballroom. There was so much interest in the Israel Summit that we had to cut off applications after a record-1,500 students applied to attend. Because students are demanding opportunities to learn — to delve deep into the complexities of the Middle East and grapple with the realities facing Israelis and Palestinians. And Hillel gives them the space to have these honest, nuanced, and intellectually rigorous conversations that no other campus organization, Jewish or otherwise, is willing or able to provide.

Jewish college students are seeking opportunities to be in community and to feel part of the Jewish people in this challenging academic year. The student leaders who came to the Hillel Israel Summit know that they joined a community much bigger than the one they found in Atlanta. For the first time, students from smaller campuses connected with a Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow. And Georgia Tech student Talia Segal (‘24) shared that, “Sharing a space with students who have all dealt with antisemitism on their campuses was like coming up for air after months of being trapped underwater.”

Israelis also recognize the important role of engaged Jewish students in North America. Former Israeli Minister Tzipi Livni and the Honorable Natan Sharansky traveled to the US to support North American Jewish students, even while their own country is at war. Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy told attendees, “I know it’s a difficult time to be a Jew on campus… But at times like these, we remember who our family are, who our friends are, who our people are. And it’s you, so that’s why I wanted to come all the way across the sea to be with you.” And Israeli Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai performed for students because as she explained, she “wanted them to dance again.”

University of California San Diego student Shani Menna (‘25) reflected, “For the first time since October 7, my new friends from campuses across the country and I no longer felt alone and isolated. We could finally wear our Zionism on our sleeves and be celebrated for it rather than ostracized.” 

The Jewish student leaders at Hillel Israel Summit 2024 express a broad range of characteristics, priorities, and opinions. But they all care about Israel and choose to engage, collaborate, and be part of the conversation, together. They choose to lead.

Jon Falk is the Vice President of Hillel International’s Israel Action and Addressing Antisemitism Program. Jon oversees the teams that support campus Hillels in navigating and responding to antisemitic incidents, anti-Israel activity, and BDS, as well as celebrating, advocating, and educating about Israel.