Andrey Kogan, the Hillel Jewish University Center’s new Herman and Helen Lipsitz Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, has traveled the world — 29 countries and counting — and though he has only been in town for less than a month, he is already in love with his adopted city.
“I love Pittsburgh; the people are lovely and warm, and the city is very interesting to me,” he said, pointing out the bridges and buildings that conjure images of his European travels.
Kogan, a native of Uzbekistan, grew up in Russia until he and his parents made aliyah to Israel when he was 8. Kogan lived in a small town in northern Israel, later moving to the suburbs of Haifa. Following a three-year stint in the Israel Defense Forces in the paratrooper brigade, he attended the University of Haifa, concentrating in Middle Eastern and Islamic history and Asian studies, with a focus on India. He graduated a month ago.
Kogan feels that studying other cultures is the key to bridging gaps.
“This is not related to political views, but history and knowledge is a huge, huge tool to make some comprehension between people,” he explained. “I believe Israel will be stronger when we achieve some understanding with our neighbors.”
When he visits other countries, he likes to immerse himself in the culture and establish friendships and connections with the locals. In addition to Hebrew, English and Russian, he also speaks Arabic, which has been an asset in his travels.
History and knowledge is a huge, huge tool to make some comprehension between people. I believe Israel will be stronger when we achieve some understanding with our neighbors.
As a student, he traveled to Jordan to try to establish an exchange program between Israeli and Jordanian students at the Center for Israel Studies in Amman. “Sadly, we failed because we had some issues with the Jordan embassy,” he said. That did not deter Kogan, however, in further attempts to build bridges between cultures.
He’s traveled to other countries with large Muslim populations, such as India and Senegal in western Africa, to study the culture and to meet the people. Of Senegal he said, “There are amazing architectural mosques and very impressive buildings. Every time I entered, people asked me if I’m a Muslim. When I tell them where I’m from, they welcome me, start asking me questions and ask about life in Israel and thank me for visiting.”
Kogan said that he has never felt that he was in danger in his travels to these countries and in fact, has always been outwardly open about his Jewish heritage.
“I never hide my Jewishness; I never hide my identity. I am always traveling with my Star of David around my neck,” he said. He uses his Jewishness as an opportunity for engaging others in conversation about Israel and the Jewish people, particularly when he runs into people who have heard negative news about Israel in the media.
Kogan’s comfort level with people of all cultures makes him exceptionally qualified to take on the role of Israel Fellow, said Hillel JUC Executive Director Daniel Marcus. “The Hillel JUC always seeks to have an Israel Fellow, and the main purpose and reason is that the Israel fellow brings an authentic and unique perspective about Israel to the college students and allows a space and a perspective to understand and learn about Israel from someone not much older than themselves.”
I never hide my Jewishness; I never hide my identity.
About 70 Israel Fellows work at campus Hillels across the United States. Marcus estimates that of the 2,000 or so Jewish students who attend both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, Hillel sees somewhere between 65 and 70 percent of those students over the course of the year. It also serves Jewish students from all area colleges and universities.
Kogan will serve in the role for a year, with the potential for a second year.
“The fellows undergo extensive training in Israel and in the U.S. to ensure that they have an understanding and the tools to be effective Israel fellows on their campuses,” said Marcus.
Though Kogan has traveled extensively, it was his first visit to the United States during a winter break from college to visit a friend from the IDF that fueled his desire to bring a piece of Israel to the Diaspora.
“I met his roommates — Jewish guys from America who had never been to Israel. We had a great conversation, and that is what made me realize I wanted to be an Israel fellow, to make those connections,” he said. That, plus the positive experiences he had with the Israel fellows in his hometown in Russia made him realize that someday he wanted to return the kindness.
In the short time he has been in town, Kogan already has met several hundred Pitt and CMU college students who have come through the Hillel doors, and he is working on programming ideas. One of his primary roles will be to co-lead a Birthright trip to Israel.
“I think it is good for them to know that there is another corner of the world that is their home, to know that there is a country that is waiting for them,” he said.
“For me, I’m very thankful I have an opportunity to work with Jewish students here,” he continued. “We are here to make every student feel like it’s their home, like it’s their family — regardless of their background or political views. I truly believe we’re all like one big, interesting family, and I’m here to bring that connection to make Israel something more personal, more real.” PJC