Israel Fellows Changing Campus Narrative

Hoping to strengthen students’ connections to Israel, and working closely with the campus Hillel, he was beginning to see results.

It had only been four months since Shachar Pinsky arrived on Towson University’s campus as its new Jewish Agency Israel Fellow.

At times, he admits, it wasn’t easy. Many of the Jewish students he encountered were apathetic. In their world, filled with academics, sports, activities and friendships, Israel was just not that important.

Yet, here he was in Israel, leading a group of Towson Hillel students on a Birthright trip over winter break. It was near the end of the 10-day journey.

As they were reflecting on their experiences, one of the students – a young women from an interfaith family who began the year apathetic toward Israel – stood up.

“She told us how she always felt like an outsider in her Jewish faith, that was underscored when her Jewish grandmother passed away,” Shachar recalled. “And now, she said, ‘You made me feel that there is a place for me in Israel. I am not an outsider. I have a home.’”

It was a poignant moment. One that confirmed that his hard work meeting these students one-on-one and engaging with them through a wide range of programs about Israel could make a difference.

Shachar is one of four Jewish Agency Israel Fellows who is spending the year on Maryland campuses through a Jewish Agency for Israel program. Funded locally through The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, these Fellows work hand-in-hand with the Hillels at the University of Maryland, College Park, Hopkins University and Goucher College, in addition to Towson. A fifth Fellow will be on UMBC’s campus next year.

Their goal is to change the narrative about Israel, to go beyond headlines that continuously focus on the conflict. They celebrate what is positive about the country – its culture, technology and people – and provide facts to counteract what they see on social media and in the news.

At the same time, they are fighting unsettling trends about Israel among Jewish students on college campuses. According to a recent survey by the Brand Israel Group, support for Israel among Jewish college students in the United States dropped 32 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Couple that with the surge of anti-Israel sentiment and a growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that attempts to delegitimize Israel, and Fellows are often working from the ground up.

Beginning with one-on-one “coffees,” these Fellows get to know the students before they engage them. And, although specifics may vary across campuses, they create programs that celebrate the culture of Israel – that tout Israeli culture, movies, art and food through Israeli Fairs, a Campus Carnival, an Israel Week and other intimate events. They also bring in speakers and provide information to help students learn the facts in order to advocate on Israel’s behalf.

“Many of the students have misconceptions about Israel, and, a lot of time, students only hear about the conflict. They don’t realize that Israel is also about art, music, food and more,” says Eden Borberg, Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Goucher College.

At the same time, she adds they often see Israel – and life – in terms of black and white. “But life is mostly in the gray. That is why creating personal connections – where they get to know me as a person and, as an Israeli helps them respond to Israel in a positive way,” Eden adds.

"Israel is an eventful microcosm," adds Lior Navon, Israel Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. "The country is so much more than black and white. And often, when students engage in our programs, they are very surprised to discover the beauty in Israel's diverse shades and complexities. As part of our programs we want students to learn how to use Israel's unique story in order to paint their reality in many colors, expand their horizons and explore their identity."

At the same time, these Fellows work hard to dispel misconceptions about Israel that arise from the media and from not understanding the facts. To that end, Lior had been working with different students' groups such as CHAI (Coalition for Hopkins Advocates for Israel) and new Israel interfaith group called Kulanu in order to create the notion that Israel is a country, not a conflict.

Some of those non-Jewish students that they took to Israel, have become allies, explains Shira Gabay, Israel Fellow at the University of Maryland.

To help provide facts, Shira brings in speakers who provide a more nuanced perspective of Israel. And the Building Bridges Shabbat brings together Israelis and Palestinians who are working in grassroots movements toward a shared society.

Their work seems to be making an impact. In a period when nationally, Birthright numbers are down, Shira says that the University of Maryland, College Park Hillel’s Birthright trip this spring is the largest ever.

Adds Eden, “I’ve had students who saw themselves as anti-Israel at first and didn’t want to engage. Now they are engaged in my program and come to events on a weekly basis.”

“If Israel becomes part of their Jewish identity, I’ve done my job,” Shira says.

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