Jerusalem: Vicki Szenes, a shy 19-year-old with a dazzling smile, often could be seen in the background at the parties and religious celebrations sponsored by the new Hillel chapter at the State University of New York at Binghamton. But it wasn’t until after Sept. 11 that the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School graduate and Staten Island native began to feel a pull to get more involved with Hillel, the foundation that encourages Jewish life at universities across the nation.
Last week Szenes was among a group of students assembled from across the country who took part in a Hillel-sponsored crash course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I had never been into politics and history, maybe out of laziness," says Szenes, who will enter her junior year in September. "Maybe after Sept. 11, I started paying more attention to the news than before."
image2goeshere Joshua Marcus came to the Hillel mission from a different route. The 18-year-old native of Long Beach, L.I., and Binghamton sophomore had been involved with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization leadership program at Long Beach High School.
But in college last year he distanced himself from organizations. As anti-Israel activity increased on campus, however, Marcus became more concerned.
"I couldn’t believe the pro-Palestinian groups could have more clout on campus than we did," Marcus said, referring to the large number of Jewish students at Binghamton: estimated by some at 30 percent of the student body.
The two Binghamton students were touring Israel last week with a small group of students from the Hillel program, while about 80 others were learning about Middle East history, Islamic fundamentalism and Israeli politics from professors at Tel Aviv University. Some students studied for the two weeks of the program, while others studied one week and toured the second.
Some toured the Gaza Strip (Szenes did not) seeing for themselves the disputed areas and how the Israel military polices the region in a situation that is "like a war, but short of a war," as one IDF commander described it.
Szenes had spent her freshman year at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv but never gave a second thought about the intifada and the safety risks it posed to her. "It didn’t scare me, I went everywhere," she says.
But after Sept. 11 she decided to attend a meeting of her Hillel’s Israel Action Committee, formed to defend Israel on campus against growing anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitic slurs.
"I went three times a week after that," she says, twirling her curly brown hair between her fingers. "When I started hearing about how much they needed for people to come and participate on campus, I realized how every single person is important, whether you know politics or not."
By the end of the semester Szenes had become such a fixture at Hillel, she was chosen by Binghamton director Gary Coleman to join the student leaders in Israel to participate in the intensive training program to counter anti-Israel propaganda.
Szenes was thrilled, but her parents, Hungarian immigrants, had other ideas.
"My dad is a big supporter of Israel but did not want to send family members here," she says.
But Szenes had a strategy to win them over. First, she told her father she was accepted into an "amazing program to teach me leadership skills." She left out that it was in Israel.
"He said ‘no way,’ " upon hearing the program was in Israel, Szenes recalls with a smile. Eventually her father acceded after Szenes assured him the mission was not a tour but more like a conference in a hotel where traveling was limited. It was bending the truth, she admits, but it worked.
Then she called her mother, and said her father had agreed to the trip.
"She said ‘you’re not going. I don’t want to hear of it.’ But I was so excited, and I had the biggest smile on my face. No one really agreed to it, but I’m here."
After five days on the program, Szenes said she was delighted to be here. She was moved by the tree-planting ceremony she took part in sponsored by the Jewish National Fund upon the group’s arrival. She was taken, too, by how grateful Israeli officials were for Hillel coming during Israel’s crisis.
"There wasn’t a person that hasn’t said they appreciated it," Szenes says. "People have tears in their eyes."
Szenes said she hoped to learn enough to take on the anti-Israel advocates herself.
"I kind of feel intimidated on the program because everyone seems to know so much more than me," she confided. "Right now I wouldn’t engage in a political debate with anyone.
But she adds: "I’m going to catch up, and I think that I will."
Marcus, sensing last spring that pro-Palestinian groups were gaining the upper hand on campus, became more involved with the Israel Action Committee. And as the end of the semester approached, he, like Szenes, began looking for opportunities to visit Israel.
"I felt in this crisis I needed to go," he says.
Marcus found out about Hillel’s quickly assembled advocacy mission and was accepted. "Both my parents didn’t think I should go, but I eventually talked them into it," he says.
After a week of seminars, he said, "I feel I’ve learned things I didn’t know before from a host of great speakers": about the obstacles to peace and Israel’s dire economic situation due to a loss of tourism.
Marcus says he was motivated by the training of AIPAC leadership director Jonathan Kessler, who energized many students with late-night advocacy strategy sessions.
When college resumes, Marcus plans to invite local and federal politicians to come to campus and support Israel, and launch a media campaign to counter what he believes is biased coverage in the college newspaper.
"One of the major things to do when I get back is to continue learning," he says.
Marcus, raised a Conservative Jew, says he felt like a minority on the trip, noting the many Orthodox students who comprised a 400-strong group that stayed for a four-day program last week.
"I’m more Zionist than religious," he says.
However, University of Texas junior Yael Kolett said she thought the diversity of Jewish denominations was "awesome."
"I love coming to programs where I can meet people from all different Jewish backgrounds," she said. "There’s so much we can take from each other to maybe make us a better Jew."
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Gary Coleman
- State University of New York at Binghamton
- Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv
- Joshua Marcus
- Vicki Szenes
- Israel Action
- Tel Aviv University
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- Gaza Strip
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