At the opening session of the 2023 Hillel International Global Assembly (HIGA) on Monday night, Israel took center stage. While this annual gathering of Hillel campus professionals, partners, and stakeholders typically takes a joyful and celebratory tone, this year is anything but typical, given the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas following the October 7th terrorist attack and the record levels of antisemitism affecting college campuses across the country.
HIGA 2023 co-chairs, Amee Sherer, Executive Director of the University of Washington Hillel, and Rabbi Seth Goren, CEO of Hillel Ontario, acknowledged their struggle to find the appropriate tone for this year’s gathering. They wanted to balance the exuberance and grief participants felt and, in Amee’s words, “honor this moment of tension and transition, enabling us to move among remembrance and reflection, resilience and renewal — and even to hold both simultaneously at times.”
As such, Amee and Seth introduced two simultaneous themes of HIGA 2023, mirroring the range of emotions the Hillel community is experiencing. The first theme is 100 Years of Hillel, highlighting the work and celebrating the wisdom, skill, and strength with which Hillel professionals serve students and campus communities. The second theme is Libi B’Mizrach — “My Heart Is In the East,” drawn from the 11th-century poem by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi that expresses longing and aspiration for a land beyond his reach.
These two themes certainly resonated with Nati Szczupak, Jewish Agency Israel Fellows Program Director for Hillel International. Her role is to guide the over 70 Israeli Fellows responsible for teaching about and uplifting Israel on campus, even as they all hold so much loss and pain for their country from a distance. When she addressed the HIGA participants on Monday night, Nati acknowledged, “Being a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, in the past 60 days, has meant being constantly torn and being in both places at the same time.”
Israel remained front and center throughout the opening session as Linoy Yechieli, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Greater Portland Hillel, performed her original song, “Parachute,” which she wrote during COVID. The song’s lyrics ask, “What is my parachute? Where can I find safety? What is the one thing that I hold on to during times of insecurity and unknown future?” Linoy’s lyrics are now more meaningful than ever during this crisis for the thousands of Jewish students that the Hillel movement serves.
Esther Abramowitz, Associate Vice President of Global Israel Experiences, and Noga Brenner Samia, Executive Director of Hillel Israel, shared their thoughts and experiences of the war. Noga concluded her remarks by leading HIGA attendees in a communal prayer for peace.
From programming focused on Israel to a holiday market featuring Israeli artists’ crafts, Israel continued to be a focal point at HIGA 2023, allowing participants to keep their hearts in the East while they celebrate, reflect, and connect with their Hillel partners and colleagues.