A team of young Israel advocates from the University of Pittsburgh wants to educate its peers on the realities of the Jewish state and just received a $5,000 prize from the Consulate General of Israel in New York and the World Jewish Congress to help get it started.
The prize was one of five awarded at an event called Campus Pitch held in New York on Feb. 15, a “Shark Tank”-style competition created to generate innovative ways to get students more involved in Israel and Jewish affairs. The competition was open to student teams from colleges and universities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware.
The four-student team from Pitt was part of a Hillel-Jewish University Center supported group called Panthers for Israel, which organizes social, cultural and political events on campus. Their initiative, a four-session student-led class they call Israel 360, will launch this week, thanks in large part to the funding from the competition.
So far, about 15 students — Jews and non-Jews — have signed up for Israel 360, with each student receiving a $70 stipend for taking the extracurricular course.
“A lot of organizations such as Chabad and Aish offer classes about Judaism that students can take for money, and we figured there should be one for Israel too,” said Steven Field, a sophomore majoring in history and political science originally from Ambler, Pa., and one of the leaders of Israel 360.
Each session of the course will focus on a different topic: Israeli diversity; the Israel/Palestinian conflict; Zionism; and Israel advocacy on campus.
“There are a lot of students out there, Jews and non-Jews alike, who want to learn more about Israel but don’t really have an avenue to do so,” Field said. “We feel it’s really important that students who want to learn about it, learn about it in an unbiased way in a safe environment, and we want to provide that.”
College campuses have become one of the strongest frontlines in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy. It is a fight that we shouldn’t have to have, but it is one that we must have.
A study recently released by the Brand Israel Group showed that support for Israel among Jewish college students has dropped dramatically in the last several years, from 84 percent in 2010 to only 57 percent in 2016, with many students believing that Israel comes up short in areas such as human rights, tolerance and diversity.
“We are definitely against BDS and pro-Israel, but our job is more to provide facts for both sides to show both sides of the argument and let students decide,” Field said. “We’re confident that once they do take a look at the facts and see the arguments, they will fall on the pro-Israel side.”
Another member of the team, Serena Mlawsky, a freshman originally from a Washington, D.C., suburb, became motivated to advocate for Israel following her participation last summer in the March of the Living, which took her first to Poland and then to Israel.
“For me, after seeing all the atrocities I saw in Poland, it only confirmed the need to have a Jewish state,” Mlawsky said.
The environmental studies and political science major believes that more than disapproving of Israel, college students tend toward indifference.
“I think overall, there is a sense of apathy toward Israel,” she said. “People very commonly assume if it doesn’t affect them, they have no reason to be educated on the subject.”
In addition to Jewish students who already “have some sort of relationship to Israel,” others who will take Israel 360 are friends of Mlawsky who “don’t know a whole lot about Israel, but they want to know more, so we can engage in intellectually stimulating conversations,” she said.
“One of my friends is in ROTC and feels that it is important to be educated on Israel for her foreign policy objectives,” she said. “One of my friends is black and wants to learn more about Israel to bring it back to her community in a more positive light. And one of my friends is Catholic and understands that Israel and Jerusalem have huge ties to Catholicism and wants to bring that back as well.”
The Panthers for Israel team gave a five-minute pitch about its vision for Israel 360 to a panel, competing against teams from Binghamton University, New York University, Baruch College and Cornell University.
The first-place prize of $10,000 went to Binghamton for its proposed campuswide “Water Gala” to raise funds to help bring Israeli innovation to African villages to alleviate the ongoing water crisis. Each of the other teams received $5,000 to carry out its proposed initiative as well.
“College campuses have become one of the strongest frontlines in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy,” said WJC CEO Robert Singer. “It is a fight that we shouldn’t have to have, but it is one that we must have, as Jewish and pro-Israel students feel silenced and threatened by the dangerous initiatives of those seeking to boycott and delegitimize Israel and Jewish communities. The groups presenting today have proven their courage and determination in striving for a more balanced dialogue and a safer space.”
Consul General Dani Dayan said although he believes Israel is the “innovation nation,” it is often challenging for the Jewish state to come up with new ideas when it comes to matters of public diplomacy.
“We need more innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, and we believe that students and the next generation can give us ideas that may be overlooked,” Dayan said to the students. “The other reason this competition is so important is because the battle for Israel’s legitimacy, for justice, is mainly fought on campuses, and you are our young ambassadors.”
The Campus Pitch initiative debuted in New York in the fall of 2015 for students in the Tri-State area, with the first competition held in spring, 2016. The project gradually expanded across the United States and to London in 2017 and is expected to launch in Europe and Latin America in the coming semesters.
In addition to Field and Mlawsky, the Panthers for Israel team included Kathryn Fleisher and Rayna Saltzman. Jewish Agency Israel Fellow Elina Lipov served as advisor.
“This is an excellent example of how Hillel-JUC strives to support student leadership to give the support and resources to execute their ideas,” said Daniel Marcus, executive director of Hillel-JUC. “We know when outstanding Jewish leaders like the those in Panthers for Israel are fully motivated, they have the most innovative ideas that engage the most students.”
The selection of her team as one of the finalists “was a huge honor, and it was definitely something I know my grandparents would have been thrilled to see me do,” said Mlawsky. “Unfortunately, they passed away, but they were all huge Zionists, so for me to convey my passion for Israel was definitely something I know they would have been proud of.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.