For Students, Dog Days of Summer Give Way to Israel Advocacy Training

Summer for students once meant lazy days for swimming, reading or playing sports. But for many of today’s Jewish youth, summer is a key time for rigorous training in Israel advocacy and Jewish leadership.

Since the start of the Palestinian intifada nearly five years ago, scores of Jewish groups rolled out or beefed up programs for Jewish students to promote Israel on college campuses, the site of the most heated debate in the United States on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As part of the increased programming, summer has become an increasingly popular time for groups to hold workshops and missions to Israel.

From Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life — which will bring hundreds of its activists to Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia for six days of leadership training — to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which will convene hundreds of its activists for political training, Jewish groups are gearing up to squeeze the most education they can into students’ summer vacations.

“The summer is a key time for Israel programming, and in some ways a more significant time to be able to create and/or energize student activists,” said Mara Suskauer, director of the Jewish National Fund’s college-activists department.

The JNF will coordinate seven trips this summer for birthright israel, the free, 10-day trip to Israel for Diaspora youth who have never visited the Jewish state, and a mission to Israel with Caravan for Democracy, an Israel advocacy group the JNF co-sponsors.

“We’ve seen that these students take the experiences from a more relaxed yet ultimately empowering summer Israel education environment and return to their campuses in the fall with a unique combination of passion, the desire to make a difference, and with the skills and tools to do so,” Suskauer said.

For Avi Spielman, an incoming sophomore at Vanderbilt University, the Caravan for Democracy mission will provide on-the-ground training.

“It’s not just learning how to be an advocate but experiencing how to be an advocate,” he said. “We’re meeting the people, going to the places that we’re advocating for, that we’re representing on campus. We’re inside the mold of what we’re trying to portray to everyone else.”

Elana Lichtenstein agrees.

The recent Brandeis University graduate got so much out of her winter 2002 trip to Israel with Hasbarah Fellowships that next month she’ll start working for the organization, a pro-Israel program for North American college students sponsored by Aish HaTorah and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Lichtenstein, 22, who grew up Orthodox, said the trip allowed her to meet a slew of high-level Israeli officials and see the diversity of Israeli political ideology.

“It was really interesting to be exposed to people who had different political perspectives, but we all cared about Israel the same amount,” she said.

As president of Zionists for Historical Veracity at Brandeis, she worked with a campus coordinator to combat widespread apathy on campus.

“I thought I could give back once I graduated,” Lichtenstein said.

Hasbarah Fellowships has steadily increased its number of two-week missions to Israel each year. Entering its fourth summer, the group will send 175 students on four trips, up from 100 students on three trips last summer.

Birthright israel also continues to grow exponentially in the variety of programs it offers and the number of young people taking part.

This summer, 10,000 youth will travel to Israel on birthright programs, some 8,500 of them from North America. The same number of students traveled last year, but more people are applying this year — 16,000, up from 12,000.

Birthright, which is funded by the Israeli government, the North American Jewish federation system and a group of Jewish philanthropists, says more funding would allow it to accommodate more students. The group credits the rise in applicants to renewed optimism about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Programming also is growing for Jewish teens.

B’nai Brith Youth Organization has expanded its batch of summer programs, reaching out to non-BBYO members.

Among them are Passport to Israel trips, which include an outdoor adventure program, a Jewish education trip and a basic tour of Israel. Nearly 350 students have enrolled on the program, six times the number that attended last year.

Julie Krause, 16, who will soon finish her junior year at New Jersey’s Cherry Hill High School East, is hooked on BBYO summer programs.

This summer, she is adding two more to the four programs she already has attended, with a two-week “Connection to Israel” program — comprised of one week at a Pennsylvania camp and one week in Israel — and a two-week community service program in Chicago.

“The first time I went it was just because I was bored. I had nothing to do,” Krause said.

But she liked that she formed friendships with people she might not otherwise get to know, and learned leadership skills.

“You’re rooming with people and you have to work with them on a daily basis just to make it through the day,” she said.

This summer, Krause is hoping to build on an Israel trip she attended with her Hebrew school confirmation class last year.

“I’ve been there and I love the country,” she said of Israel, but “I don’t know my place. I don’t live there. I don’t spend summers there. I want to find my place in Israel, what I’m supposed to do.”

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