For Chana Novack, support for Israel is a Jewish value. As the rebbetzin for Chabad on Campus at Washington University in St. Louis, she sees it as her duty to help students connect with Israel.
“A deeply ingrained Jewish value and mitzvah is v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, to love your fellow as yourself,” said Novack. “There are millions of Jews who are living in Israel, and it is our Jewish obligation to get to know them.”
Novack went on, “By extension, I think it’s our obligation as Jewish communal organizations to create as many possible opportunities for American Jewish young adults to connect with Jews from all over the world and to connect with Jews from Israel.”
Yet, support for Israel has recently dipped in the U.S., particularly among young adults. A 2019 American Jewish Committee study found that 62 percent of American Jews agree that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew” compared with 70 percent in 2018. Only 44 percent of 18-29-year-olds identify with the statement.
Hillels and Chabads across the country hope to counter apathy and criticism of Israel with programming that fosters connection and understanding. Sometimes seen as rivals on various campuses, the two groups at Washington University see themselves as partners in providing different approaches to connecting students with Israel.
Hillel at Washington University offers a collection of opportunities to learn more about Israel. It runs Birthright trips each winter and summer, supports student groups like WashU Israel Public Affairs Committee and WashU Students for Israel and facilitates the Campus Leaders Israel Experience.
CLIE, run by WashU Hillel Rabbi Jordan Gerson, brings a group of Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders on a 10-day trip that explores Israeli and Palestinian narratives.
Students see both sides of the separation barrier. They visit refugee camps and speak with members of the Palestinian Authority, and they also tour Israeli settlements and communities on the border of Gaza.
“My job wasn’t to get students to believe what I believe,” Gerson said. “It was to get students to develop their own unique, mature and nuanced relationships with Israel and Judaism.”
Nuance allows “our students to feel like they want to engage in the Israel conversation with us as opposed to dismissing Hillel as a soapbox for extremely biased and pro-Israel propaganda.”
Given a desire to show both sides, WashU Hillel and affiliated organization Hillel International refuse to host programming that is biased against Israel.
“We believe that Israel is a Jewish value, so we do not sponsor or host programs that are designed to delegitimize [it] or create a double-standard,” said Matt Berger, vice president of communications for Hillel International and senior advisor to the Israel Action Program.
He wants students to connect with Israel, politics aside. “We believe that support for and connection to Israel goes beyond politics,” he said. “You can connect with Israel on a whole host of different levels and different experiences even if you disagree with policy decisions.”
Like Hillel, Chabad creates programs to foster Jewish connection to Israel. In the face of growing disillusionment and apathy, Novack employs a trusted antidote: a combination of formal programming and informal conversations that she hopes will inspire students to learn more.
“Jewish students today are more knowledgeable about the history and about Israel than they ever have been before,” she said. “Instead of a class on the history of the Israeli borders, we’re bringing soldiers to spend 10 days on a Birthright trip with people.”
Chabad WashU has partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel for two years. Reshit Ehrlich, an Israel fellow from the Jewish Agency, runs Israel classes, integrates Israelis into the WashU community and hosts Hebrew learning events, all through Chabad WashU.
Both Chabad and Hillel hope their programs will inspire students on campus to learn more about Israel, to engage in conversations that challenge their beliefs and to ultimately see Israel as part of their own Jewish identities.
Kayla Steinberg is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis.