At Hiram College in northeast Ohio, a student population of just over 1,000 means there aren’t too many Jews coming to the events held by the school’s recently re-launched Hillel. But student president Robert Weitzner believes that small numbers don’t necessitate small voices.
“On campus, we have a number of students with a negative image of Israel,” said Weitzner. “This year, Hillel was re-founded. Before that, we Jews didn’t have a voice showing the positive side of Israel.”
So when Weitzner was invited to the first ever Israel advocacy training weekend at Pittsburgh’s Hillel JUC, he decided to come, and bring his board along.
From Friday to Sunday this weekend, Hillel JUC will draw over 70 students from 10 local universities for its advocacy training workshop — a three-day program co-sponsored with Israel education organization The David Project to teach students how to respond to negative messages about Israel spreading on campuses. Deputy Consul General of Israel Raslan Abu Rukun, a Druze Israeli, will be the special guest speaker.
Rukun is the first non-Jewish Israeli to be named Deputy Consul General. While most Israel advocacy in this country comes from Jews, Rukun represents a non-Jewish voice educating others about his country.
“I will speak about the challenges Israel faces in the Middle East and international arenas,” said Rukun, calling from his office in Philadelphia. “Israel advocacy is very important today. In the last few years, we see an increasing process of the delegitimizing of Israel, and a lot of it is coming from inside college campuses. It is alright to criticize Israel — we have a lot of criticisms from inside the country — but it’s not right to boycott or sanction.”
The idea for the weekend originated back in October, when Hillel JUC’s Assistant Director of Jewish Student Life, Carly Adelmann, and Israel fellow, Leehee Kaane, met with staff of The David Project. They wanted to create a weekend to immerse students in advocacy training when the winter Birthright season had just ended, courting students who had just traveled to Israel to attend the workshop.
“When you get back [from Birthright], you want to do anything and everything for Israel,” said Adelmann. “If we don’t engage the students in that time, they lose that spark.”
The goal was to “provide an educational foundation for a larger amount of students,” said Adelmann. “We thought, instead of sending our students away to conferences, why not bring more students here?”
Friday afternoon, students from Carnegie Mellon University, Ohio State, Penn State, Hiram College, Case Western, George Washington University, Community College of Allegheny County, West Virginia University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Pittsburgh will meet at Hillel to begin the training weekend. The students, many of whom are involved in their schools’ Hillels, will join the Hillel JUC’s Israel-themed Shabbat dinner. They’ll be trained by representatives from The David Project on how to speak out for Israel, including some cultural education from local Israeli students. To break Shabbat, the students will head to a popular Oakland bar for a Tel Aviv-themed party.
“We want to give the students a personal stake in why they’re advocating for Israel,” said Adelmann. “When you get back from Birthright, you have new friends and new experiences. But that doesn’t give you much when you talk with people boycotting Israel, saying it shouldn’t exist. We want to connect the passion with the facts.”
One session will have students reading Pitt’s student paper, The Pitt News, to look at details of how Israel is portrayed in even student-centric media.
“Instead of just saying how to combat misreports about Israel in the media, they’re going to look at very specific articles from their paper,” said Adelmann.
Ryan Gianola, the Hillel president at Penn State, put together a crew of 10 Jewish students to attend the training weekend. Gianola, a Fox Chapel native, leads a small Hillel, considering his school’s Jewish population is upward of 6,000. Those few voices, then, must be heard.
“It’s really important to educate people on the real issues,” said Gianola. “With the whole Israel-Palestinian conflict, there are rumors. It’s hard to hear the right information.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)