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A bittersweet lesson from Rutgers

 

Rutgers Hillel celebrates successes in combating anti-Israelism on campus

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Honorees and others at last week’s gala are, front row, from left, Mark Busch, Michal Greenbaum, Katie Landy, Ruth Cole, Andrew Getraer, (not an honoree but Rutgers Hillel executive director), Rona Shein, Raffi Mark, and Frankie Busch (not an honoree but a co-chair of the event). In the back row, from left, are Liran Kapoano, Leonard Cole, Jeff Shein, Mariya Badu, Melissa Schoffer (not an honoree but a co-chair), and Sarah Morrison. courtesy Rutgers Hillel

It was a tough year for friends of Israel on the Rutgers campus.

But last Tuesday night, at the Rutgers Hillel Gala held in Livingston, student activists got a warm reminder that they don’t stand alone as community leaders from all corners of the state came out to support the 68-year-old campus organization.

“The Rutgers Hillel Gala was an overwhelming success by every yardstick,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel. “We surpassed both attendance and fundraising goals by comfortable margins and, perhaps most important, the evening was a social success thanks to the Hillel students who provided programming and master of ceremonies duties. The gala was a perfect end to a highly successful Hillel school year and provided a running boost to the $18 million capital campaign to construct a new Hillel on the Rutgers campus.”

Some 275 people attended.

Local students spotlighted include Sam Weiner of Paramus, who was one of the masters of ceremonies for the evening, and two of the undergraduates who received “Student Rising Star” awards: Mariya Badu of Fair Lawn and Raffi Mark of Wayne. Michal Greenbaum, originally of Teaneck, who graduated in 2007, received Hillel’s first Young Alumni Award.

Highlighting the connection between the campus community and the established Jewish community was the leadership award given to Leonard and Ruth Cole of Ridgewood. Ruth Cole is president of the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations, which is funding Hillel’s battles on behalf of Israel on campus. (See related story.) Leonard Cole is chair of the Birthright-Israel Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America and a faculty member at Rutgers, where he is an expert in bioterrorism and terror medicine on the faculty of the Division of Global Affairs.

Mark, along with Liran Kapoano of Highland Park, presented a program entitled Fighting the Delegitimization of Israel on Campus.

“Since November of last year we have been subjected to numerous anti-Israel events and a significant increase in campus tensions,” said Mark. “Rarely has a day gone by when we have not had demonstrations, op-eds, or events that seek to falsely cast Israel as an aggressive, apartheid state or even draw comparisons between the Jewish state’s defensive actions and Nazi Germany’s Final Solution.”

“Rutgers University has found itself on the front lines of international anti-Israel efforts, as well as some visiting programs that can only be described as anti-Jewish,” said Getraer. “I was very proud of the Hillel student leadership and how they rose to the occasion to delegitimize the delegitimizers.”

One such event, co-sponsored by pro-Palestinian group BAKA (Belief, Awareness, Knowledge, Activism) and IJAN (the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network), was entitled Never Again for Anyone. The premise of the event was that the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis was equivalent to the treatment of Jews and other political prisoners of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was advertised as “free and open to the public,” and so as a response Hillel organized a silent protest. Several students planned to sit in the front rows of the event wearing yellow shirts that said “Don’t Politicize the Holocaust” and, during one of the pro-Palestinian speeches, stand for a moment of silence before exiting. The event caught the attention of Jewish leaders from surrounding communities, and almost 400 people showed up to protest. Seeing that they were outnumbered almost three to one, the cost of admission, which previously was a suggested donation, suddenly became mandatory. The protest was thus held outside the event’s doors.

Hillel was on the front lines crafting responses to each anti-Israel event as it came up, as well as creating new pro-Israel programs to bring the community together. During Apartheid Week, Hillel set up a booth near BAKA’s apartheid wall and handed out cake with an Israeli flag design in the icing, as well as pamphlets, Israeli candy, and snacks. The overall feeling from the group was that the pro-Israel side attracted far more passers-by than the wall.

There were also many pro-Israel events that were not reacting to anti-Israel sentiment. For instance, IsraelFest, held just a few days before RutgersFest, included a large inflatable rock wall labeled Masada for anyone who wanted to climb. Participants left with bags and sunglasses labeled IsraelFest, as well as pamphlets and other sources of information on the Jewish state.

“This year has been a stressful year with constant reminders of the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel movement on campus,” said Mark, “but Hillel has remained not only supportive but a true safe haven against negativity which will only improve with the new staff.”

In addition to its pro-Israel activities, Hillel also is a resource for many Jewish religious and cultural events and activities, such as Birthright trips, ASB (Alternative Spring Break) trips to Guatemala, Israel, and New Orleans, and programs for freshmen to get acquainted with one another and Hillel.

Badu’s description of her experience with Hillel exemplifies the role of the organization in forging Jewish identity among students.

“I was never fully sure what Judaism meant to me as I was not raised religiously,” said Badu, who was born in Russia. “I was unable to identify myself with a specific denomination. Through Birthright and my experiences within Hillel, I have been truly able to embrace my identity and come to terms with my strong cultural ties to Judaism, which have come to be an integral component of my identity. Hillel played such a pivotal role in my college career and inspired me to continue to be involved in the Jewish community now that I have graduated.”

“Working with student leaders such as these every single day is one of the best parts of my job,” said Getraer at the gala. “The generation of Jewish youth today faces challenges like we’ve never seen before. We intend to give them the inspiration to become Jewish leaders.”

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Anti-Israel graffiti on an "Israeli apartheid wall" set up on Rutgers campus.
 
 

Write On For Israel program prepares teens to stand up for Israel on campus

Local student recognized for pro-Israel advocacy

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Write On For Israel honored three graduates of the program for their pro-Israel activism on campus at the 2010 graduation ceremony. From left are Linda Scherzer, director of Write On for Israel/NY; Samantha Vinokur; Amanda Baskind, a graduate of Glen Rock High School who also graduated from the University of Albany; Teaneck resident Emily Schlussel, a graduate of Frisch who attends Cornell; and Rabbi Yotav Eliach, Write On Core Educator and principal of Rambam Mesivta High School. courtesy write on for Israel

Over the past year, as anti-Israel events on campus surged in what one professor characterized as an anti-Israel “drumbeat,” pro-Israel students at Rutgers University refused to sit quietly and be drowned out.

Among those striving to make pro-Israel voices heard was Rutgers student Sam Weiner.

Weiner, who will be a senior next year, says he was helped in learning how to respond to anti-Israel students by his work with Write On For Israel, a program in which he trains high school students in countering efforts to demonize and de-legitimize Israel.

“People whose business cards I got through Write On made networking much easier.… I had relationships,” people to talk to and ask, “‘Here’s what’s going on. Can you send us some information and send us a speaker?’” said Weiner, who along with five other students was to be recognized Thursday evening for his work as an adviser to younger students in the program.

Created in 2002 by Jewish Week Editor Gary Rosenblatt of Teaneck and former CNN Correspondent Linda Scherzer of Closter, the program seeks to instill in students the confidence, knowledge, and skills to make Israel’s case in the classroom and beyond.

“We discovered along the way they needed skills not just outside the classroom … but also dealing with professors, who may be putting out information that at worst is factually inaccurate and at best is grossly unbalanced,” said Scherzer, who in addition to covering the Middle East for CNN during the 1980s traveled in the Arab world to produce a documentary, “Through the Eyes of Enemies: Is the Middle East Ready for Peace?” She added, “Students are in a position where, these are the people who are grading them, authority figures … and they are sometimes intimidated.”

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Rutgers student Sam Weiner has received honors for his work training teens in the Write On For Israel Program. Courtesy Weiner Family

The two-year program focuses on writing and advocacy. It has “graduated” 350, among whom dozens, according to Scherzer, have gone on to assume leadership positions on college campuses across the country.

Applicants must submit an application including two essays, transcripts, and references. Forty high school seniors and 44 juniors are participating this year.

First-year participants meet for seven day-long sessions at Columbia University’s Hillel building, where they practice composing letters to the editor and opinion pieces.

“We work with core groups of students to develop the abilities to look at the press and the way it writes and speaks about Israel, [and] to respond as succinctly and effectively as possible,” said Weiner.

Numerous students’ letters to the editor have been published, including one recently in The New York Times.

Another component of the program is education in Israeli history, taught by Rabbi Yotav Eliach.

“Students are responsible for a large amount of information; this is the story [of Israel]; we need them to know it backwards and forwards,” said Weiner.

They also hear speakers, including such prominent journalists as Bret Stephens, foreign affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and Israeli officials such as Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general.

Write On For Israel also serves as a “feeder system,” according to Scherzer, to the world of pro-Israel advocacy.

“We are giving them contacts” with people from organizations like AIPAC, StandWithUs, and Hillel, she said.

In the middle of the year, the juniors travel to Israel on a week-long excursion and meet with Israeli politicians and foreign ministry officials.

Arik Legman, 17, a junior at Northern Valley High School in Demarest, attended the AIPAC Policy Conference last month with a delegation from Write On For Israel and wrote about the experience for the newsletter of his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Closter.

He also traveled to Israel as part of his participation.

In an interview, Arik described the Write On For Israel trip, including visits to Sderot (“We saw how close Gaza was”) and to army bases. But it was his conversation with an Israel Defense Forces company commander he remembers most.

Returning from the Golan, the group met with two of Eliach’s former students who are now serving in the IDF. One told them that “he does his job which is to keep Israel safe, and he can’t do his job unless we do our job, which is to explain to the world why Israel does what it does.

“Someone who every single day has to wake up and try to keep Israel safe — this high-ranking officer — is telling a group from New Jersey that our participation is important to his work and important to the survival of Israel,” Legman said.

The trip and other elements of the program are funded by the Avi Chai Foundation.

Write On For Israel also has branches in Chicago, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

For information, visit www.writeonforisrael.org.

 
 

Movie to marshal support for college Israel advocacy

Rutgers students to lead discussion

“We are in need at Rutgers,” said Raffi Mark, a student and Israel advocate on the New Brunswick campus.

“Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus,” a documentary detailing students’ struggles against anti-Semitism, will be screened at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus on Tuesday, Aug. 9. The 39-minute film was produced by Raphael Shore and directed by Wayne Kopping.

The congregation obtained the film with the help of Hasbara Fellowships, an organization that “trains students across the United States in Israel Advocacy,” according to Atara Jacobs, community and public relations coordinator for the organization.

A discussion moderated by Mark, of Wayne, and another Rutgers student, Sam Weiner of Paramus, will be held after the screening.

“When you send kids to college they should know what’s going on, and they should be able to talk about it in an intelligent way,” said Gershon Rosenzweig, chair of the Israel Awareness committee of JCC of Paramus and its past president.

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Raffi Mark, left, Saskia Marina Photography and Sam Weiner Courtesy Weiner Family

According to the film’s website, campusintifada.com, the documentary “offers a glimpse into the experiences of Jewish college students who are actively involved in the daily struggle of supporting the State of Israel and fighting against biased misinformation both in and out of the classroom.”

The JCCP’s Israel Awareness committee, founded in November, sponsors film screenings, visits of Israeli students to the shul, and discussions, among other cultural events.

Tuesday’s film focuses on the reactions of U.S. college students after Israel’s military movements against Gaza in 2008 and 2009, according to campusintifada.com. It explores Muslim organizations that have ties to American universities. It also highlights pro-Israel student activists and their campus campaigns.

Both Rutgers students plan to draw from their experiences as Israel advocates on campus when they lead the discussion.

Twenty-one-year-old Weiner, a senior, is “heavily involved with the Israel advocacy movement at Rutgers,” he said, and will be vice president of Rutgers Hillel this year. He also participated in Write on for Israel, an advocacy journalism program.

“The war to delegitimize Israel has found a home at Rutgers, and we don’t want this to last for long,” said Weiner. “We’ve had an incredibly successful year at Rutgers dealing with what went on there,” he said.

He refers to such programs as the touring Never Again for Anyone event, sponsored by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and American Muslims for Palestine. The Jan. 29 event at Rutgers, according to Weiner, “linked the actions of the Nazis in Europe to actions taken by Israel in 1948.”

The event featured two Holocaust survivors and two Palestinians. Israel supporters on campus reached out to the greater Jewish community in the area and 300 people turned out to protest it.

The event “crossed over the line into anti-Semitism,” said Mark, 20 years old and a junior at Rutgers. Mark was on the Rutgers Hillel student planning committee for Israel and this year will be the Israel chair of the Rutgers Hillel student board.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the event was “the latest effort by anti-Israel activists to exploit the sacred memory of the Holocaust for the purpose of painting its victim, the Jewish people, as the ‘new’ oppressor in the form of Israel.”

“The line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is being blurred,” says Hasbara Fellowship’s Jacobs.

The Hasbara program was founded in 2001 conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its mission, according to its website, hasbarafellowships.org, is “simple: educate, train, and motivate university students to be passionate, dedicated, and effective pro-Israel advocates on their campuses.”

The program also brings students to Israel. According to its website, Hasbara Fellowships has hosted more than 1,800 students from more than 250 college campuses.

Mark went on a Hasbara Fellowships program this summer, spending about two weeks in Israel. He said, “It’s the perfect blend of education, advocacy training, and experiencing Israel. With all three, you can come back to campus and not just give prepared responses about Israel but be able to say, I was there, I saw it.”

Though already heavily involved in Israel advocacy, the trip “gave me a stronger connection to Israel,” Mark said.

The screening is only the beginning of an awareness campaign by Hasbara Fellowships in the area, according to Jacobs. Seminars about Israel advocacy are being planned for the fall.

The film has been shown across the country and around the world, and screened by multiple Israel advocacy organizations. Mark has seen clips of it and said, “It’s a very powerful movie, and … is a call to action, especially locally in New Jersey.”

Rosenzweig hopes that the screening will make people aware of the situation on college campuses. “It’s about how we should make our citizens feel comfortable,” he said.

Weiner wants “to get across awareness of how hard [student advocates for Israel] are working to combat anti-Semitism on campus, and how [the community’s] support really helps…. One evening discussion is wonderful, but hopefully it will serve as a catalyst for people.”

“Gershon Rosenzweig was amazing in helping me screen the film at the JCCP,” said Jacobs. “This is going to be an eye-opening event for the community,” she said, adding, “we are very excited…. This is for them to get in the know about what’s going on in colleges around the United States.”

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Film to be shown Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 7 p.m. at the JCC of Paramus. (See calendar listing.)
 
 
 
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