As a long-time Israel activist at UMass Amherst, I can speak firsthand to the centrality of Israel travel in strengthening one’s Jewish identity and building a network of support for Israel on campus.
Fortunately for Boston-area students like myself, there are many opportunities to go to Israel and to bring pro-Israel pride back to campus. Having been on campus for more than three years, I have seen the impact of programs like Birthright Israel and Onward Israel internships. I cannot imagine Jewish life here without these opportunities for students of all backgrounds to visit the Jewish state for themselves. We have Jewish students in every corner of campus and every aspect of life at UMass, from Greek organizations and sports to the student newspaper. Being able to travel to Israel together for the experience of a lifetime is something that can unite all these students for the rest of their time on campus.
Nationally, just 43 percent of American Jews have been to Israel. As an Israel activist at UMass, I am working with other students to make sure a far larger portion of Jewish students here experience Israel. Some of us, like myself, have been to Israel four or more times, as is the case with one-fifth of Boston Jews. We know that Israel programs change people’s lives, whether pointing them in a new direction with their career, their personal lives or Jewish engagement. When UMass students come back from Birthright Israel trips, for instance, many of them create new clubs. Others become Get Back to Israel representatives to make sure more unaffiliated Jewish students are able to travel with UMass on Birthright the next season.
On campus we face a major outreach challenge, with most Jewish students being “unaffiliated,” meaning they are not involved in Jewish activities. Without a tool like Birthright Israel to spark excitement in these students, it would be very difficult to make deep inroads. UMass sends well over 100 students on Birthright Israel each year, and at least 80 percent of these students come back and infuse Hillel with their newfound passion and energy. Within Hillel, we work to help students tap into three core areas: Jewish learning, community service and Israel engagement. Birthright alumni are a key part of our ability to draw hundreds of students to pro-Israel events, as they come with their friends and with a pre-existing love for Israel. With a full-time IACT coordinator funded by CJP, we are able to reach unaffiliated students and ensure personalized trip follow-up for each one of them. So many students have misconceptions of Birthright as a “religious” trip, or that they are “not Jewish enough,” so we need many student recruiters and evolving strategies to convince these students that Birthright is for them.
Now, more than ever, we need this broad network of students who have ties to Israel. As is well known, Israel is under assault on many campuses, whether by hostile faculty members in the classroom or by the movement to “boycott” Israel in student governments, led by Students for Justice in Palestine. As both a Hillel and student-government leader, I have spent a lot of time working with student leaders who aren’t Jewish to make sure the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel does not take hold on campus. When I arrived at UMass in 2013, there were no formal opportunities for students who weren’t Jewish to travel to Israel. Today there are several programs I have helped students of all faiths travel to Israel with, and we have a more diverse support network for Israel than ever.
It’s important to understand that trips like Birthright are about more than just the participants themselves. They are also about infusing the campus with enough pro-Israel voices so that ugly, anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activities cannot take root at UMass, like they have elsewhere. We are pleased to see that programs like Onward Israel and Masa Israel now have tracks for participants who aren’t Jewish. Israel has something to offer everyone on campus. We can help any student get there, and we can bring Israel back to campus in more ways than ever. The country and its people speak for itself, and Israel will always be a source of inspiration.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.
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