Ten students active in the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh recently returned from Israel, where they developed strategies for combating anti-Israel sentiments on campus. Among the travelers were eight students from the University of Pittsburgh and two from Carnegie Mellon University. Each participant was selected by leadership from Hillel JUC.
“This was for a group of students who have previously shown their passion and commitment to Israel,” said Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC. Such commitment was demonstrated by leading student groups, maintaining a proactive role on campus or traveling to Israel on previous trips.
“We looked for students who we can invest [in] for a couple of years,” said Vered Juhl, a Jewish Agency for Israel fellow at Hillel JUC.
Accordingly, three freshman, four sophomores and three juniors were asked to participate. The experience was called the Israel Ambassadors Program and represented a collaboration between Hillel JUC and the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh (CRC).
In conversations stemming from last year, Marcus and representatives from the Federation shared concerns about varying pressures experienced by Pittsburgh’s Jewish college students.
“There’s a lot of tension on college campuses these days,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing at the Federation. “There is a hostile sentiment either on the part of those who are outright anti-Israel or people who are against some of the policies of the Israeli government. We felt it was important to work together to give students the information they need to be informed about Israel and Judaism.”
Through the Israel Ambassadors Program, Hillel JUC and the Federation hope that participating students will become more comfortable advocating for Israel and the Jewish community.
To aid their ascension, the students received help from various sources. In Israel, through the efforts of Gregg Roman, former director of the CRC and current director of the Middle East Forum, participants met with various speakers, including Arsen Ostrovsky, an international human rights lawyer and director of research at the Israeli-Jewish Congress; Yitzhak Sokoloff, a political analyst and founder and director of Keshet — the Center for Educational Tourism in Israel; and Bassem Eid, founder and director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.
“Who we met with and what we did was wholly unique,” said Zachary Schaffer, president of Pitt’s Student Board at Hillel JUC. “It was truly incredible.”
For Schaffer, this was his seventh organized trip to Israel and sixth taken in college; however, what distinguished this venture was its focus. Prior to departing, participants shared campus-related problems, including the rising boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and accusations from other students or staff that Israel prosecutes minors in the West Bank or that Jewish students are loyal only to Israel and not America.
While in Israel, participants discussed strategies for combating such claims. With Roman’s help, the students developed a yearlong calendar of programming, or what Schaffer termed a “strategic plan.”
In it, said Schaffer, are identifiable goals such as coalitions to be built, op-eds to be written and plans for working with the media and campus leaders.
The plan is already in effect, said Marcus. Beginning with new student orientation, the students have acted as a resource and support to other Israel groups and Israel group leaders. Moving forward, the students will hold weekly and monthly meetings to follow up on various action items.
Not leaving any stone unturned, the students have even anticipated the unexpected.
“You always have a plan until you get punched in the face,” said Schaffer. “[We’ve] been planning for what you can’t plan for.”
With the school year ready to begin, participants of the Israel Ambassadors Program are ready to engage in campus life, said Juhl.
“This is going to be an exciting year for us, and we are really looking forward to hold our educational program on campus and to collaborate with other students.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.