Behind the Headlines: Hebrew U. Experience Provided Inspiration for Many American Jews

When a Hamas bomb killed seven people at Hebrew University last week, Michelle Richmond sent her former colleagues at MSNBC a message.

Richmond, now a senior producer at Court TV, had seen a CNN news report describing the campus as disputed territory and told her friends at MSNBC’s “The News With Brian Williams” what she could about the campus setting and its history.

In the spring of 1987, Richmond spent part of her junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, studying international relations and Israeli politics.

Ever since, she said this week, she’s done what she can to educate her media colleagues about media balance in covering Israel. Like generations of Americans who have spent a semester or a year abroad at Hebrew University or at other Israeli universities, Richmond feels the experience changed her life.

She has remained friends with many Hebrew University colleagues, and to this day “Israel is always at the forefront of my thoughts.”

For many, Hebrew University marked a turning point in their lives, providing the inspiration for careers as rabbis, Jewish educators and communal leaders.

But with last week’s attack at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria that struck many American Jews particularly hard, even after nearly two years of Palestinian violence, fewer young American Jews are following in Richmond’s footsteps.

All of the Israeli universities’ overseas programs report a precipitous drop in enrollment over the past few two years.

While some students persevere — 17 students departed for Ben-Gurion University’s overseas program on Tuesday — most who might have ordinarily participated in such programs are choosing other options these days.

Steven Cohen, a professor at the Melton Centre at the Hebrew University, calls this a “lost Jewish generation.”

“The people who we lost and the people who will not show up in Israel are, frankly, the most idealistic, most committed to Israel, most dedicated to Jewish life,” Cohen said.

“We’re now going to experience a lost Jewish generation that won’t have the benefit of a Jewish education with others of their kind, and this will be with us for the next 50 years.”

Already two theories about this problem are emerging, Cohen said. “One is that we’ve already hit rock-bottom in terms of the numbers of students who have come here knowing full well the risks and all the dangers associated with living in Israel,” he said.

“The other theory is that the cafeteria bombing is an element of danger that these students hadn’t anticipated. Some may leave, some who enrolled may not show up, and those who applied for next year may be dissuaded from coming.”

At this point, it remains unclear whether the ongoing Mideast strife will continue to hurt Hebrew University and other overseas programs in Israel, Cohen said.

Currently there are 126 American students at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. A decade ago, more than 1,000 participated each year. That program has been the largest of the Israeli-based university programs.

Regardless of the numbers, every student that stays home represents someone who has missed an experience many American Jews considered central to their lives.

Lisa Magnas, a descendant of Hebrew University founder Judah Magnes and president of the greater New York chapter of the Hebrew University Alumni Association, calls her year abroad from 1986-1987 crucial.

Magnas had been to Israel as a child with her parents, but found herself in Israel in the years following its war in Lebanon, when the first Palestinian uprising broke out.

It was the first time she was living on her own, and Magnas dove into courses she couldn’t find at her U.S. college — biblical archaeology; Islamic civilization; oil and politics.

She made friends with Jews, Christians, Muslims and Greek Orthodox students, with whom she would engage in an “ongoing dialogue” about Israel, their home countries, their travel plans.

As one of the few modern Orthodox women on campus who came from the world of Jewish day schools, the experience “made me feel like I was really in the world,” she recalled.

And as a fluent Hebrew speaker, she studied the Israeli media and discovered a new take on the Mideast conflict.

“It opened my eyes,” she said.

After working in the banking industry, Magnas decided to act on her passions about the media, and is now executive producer of a feature film about “liberal media bias” that is in the works called “Amnesia Jam.”

Just a few years after Magnas attended Hebrew University, the Gulf War broke out.

That year, 1990-1991, was when Paul Arberman attended Hebrew University.

In the years since, Arberman earned a degree in government from Wesleyan University, worked for then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), spent another year in Israel — and made aliyah three years ago.

Arberman is due to be ordained this December as a Conservative rabbi after attending the Jewish Theological Seminary-affiliated Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and he draws a direct line from his time at Hebrew University to today.

His decision to become a rabbi “was largely due to my happy year there,” when he studied political science, debated politics with other students, went Israeli dancing, frequented cafes and went on historical and nature tours of Israel.

“You form a relationship with the land that runs deep,” he said. “The national dialogue becomes your dialogue.”

One classmate of Arberman’s was Scott Lasensky, who today is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, Lasensky not only spent his junior year on Mount Scopus but returned to Hebrew University in 1998 to pursue his doctorate in international relations.

During his undergraduate year, Lasensky roomed with a Korean student, took courses with leading thinkers such as Peace Now activist and Soviet Union expert Galia Golan and explored Israel and the territories.

He ultimately wrote his doctoral dissertation on the role of foreign aid in the Middle East peace process.

His first year at Hebrew University “planted a seed” for his career to come, he said.

“It was a formative, edifying experience that likely led me to seek a professional as well as personal connection to Israel and the Middle East.”

Like many Hebrew University alumni, Lasensky has kept in touch with many of his friends from that year, and some remain professional contacts today.

And he’s not alone.

“You have many people close to this conflict as well as the peace process at an elite level who have close connections” to Hebrew University, he said.

Among the more well-known alumni are the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, and his predecessor, Martin Indyk. Top media figures such as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman also attended Hebrew University.

Thousands of others less visible returned from studying at Hebrew University intent on making an impact on the Jewish community.

One such student was Andrea Weiss, who spent her spring semester, 1986, studying there.

Her Hebrew University experience was the first time she’d been to Israel, and she took Jewish studies courses and studied Hebrew literature. She returned to Berkeley, Calif., thinking she was going to law school.

But in Israel, she said, “my Jewish education really came alive.”

She returned to Jerusalem in 1988 as part of her studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and became a Reform rabbi.

“To people who knew me, it seemed like the most natural thing I could have done with my life,” said Weiss, who lives outside of Philadelphia.

Today Weiss, the second cousin of Marla Bennett, who was killed in last week’s attack, teaches Bible at the HUC in New York.

She was inspired by Bennett’s devotion to the Jewish state.

Weiss also has a 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca, whom she “prays” she can take to Israel one day soon.

Some remain equally hopeful that terrorism and the Mideast conflict will not prevent U.S. students from going to Hebrew University and Israel in the future.

“Almost three generations of American Jews have studied there,” said Lasensky, whose father studied at Hebrew University in the early 1970s.

“That kind of connection is not so easily wiped out.”

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