Hillel Expanding Its Horizons for Israeli College Students

Before the new Hillel office at Tel Aviv University was ceremoniously unveiled, a student in a group talking with Adam Bronfman told the philanthropist that the world’s largest Jewish campus organization “has a lot of work to do” at his school.

With its new on-campus digs there, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is better equipped to get the job done.

Organizers are hoping the location dedicated Sunday — spacious with hardwood floors, plush couches and several classrooms, as opposed to the tiny, cramped off-campus office Hillel had occupied — will reflect the movement’s growing success in Israel.

“It’s an honor to be part of this journey being created in Israel,” Bronfman, who is helping the Hillel movement grow in Israel, said as he hung the mezuzah.

The concept of Hillel in Israel might at first seem like an oxymoron.

Around the world, the organization works to bring a sense of identity and involvement to young Jews — on the surface not an issue for Jewish Israeli students. But those students who have been flocking to its events in Israel in recent years in greater numbers say its pluralistic brand of Diaspora-style Judaism is a revelation.

“Zionism is not enough,” said Asher Grinner, 29, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University. “Secular Israelis are giving up on their Jewish identity, aside from doing their army service and speaking Hebrew.”

“There are lots of negative connotations to the idea of Judaism here, but without a Jewish identity there is no real reason to be here,” he said.

In Israel, feeling connected to the country as a Jew is not the problem. But there is a sense of isolation from the religion and culture of Judaism itself among the secular majority, Hillel activists say.

Avishag Ashkenazi, 23, another Tel Aviv University student, said Hillel helped show her the many ways of being Jewish.

“People see Judaism as something strict and old that has nothing to do with their lives,” she said. “Hillel and the pluralistic approach says to them, ‘Judaism is what you make of it, it’s in your hands.’ “

For many Israeli students who equate Judaism with Orthodoxy, the idea is revolutionary, said Esther Abramowitz, director of student life in Israel for Hillel.

“In Israel we tell people that you can own your own Jewish story,” she said.

Hillel opened its first center in Israel in 1951 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In recent years it has spread to Tel Aviv University and other campuses. Hillel has a center that serves both Haifa University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, as well as the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. There are plans to open centers for colleges in northern Israel.

This month, Hillel is bringing a taste of tikkun olam-style community activism that has worked so well for its students abroad to about 300 Israeli students, who are spending their February break in the North in places hard hit by last summer’s war with Hezbollah: Kiryat Shemona, Haifa and Ma’alot.

The project was sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and led by Adam Bronfman, the foundation’s managing director.

The program launched on Monday, with students volunteering to clean up and paint bomb shelters in need of repair and meeting with local residents. It will include follow-up funds for community projects students decide to initiate upon their return.

Before the new Hillel office’s dedication Sunday, Bronfman and his wife, Cindy, talked with students about being involved with Jewish culture on campus.

“We have realized that having a Jewish Israeli identity for Israelis is different from having an Israeli identity,” he told the group of about 30 students.

The students told Bronfman and Hillel board members of their experiences. One spoke about spending time as an Israeli emissary in Canada, when he realized how much he could learn from North American Judaism. Another spoke about his friends, secular like himself, who viewed Judaism negatively, as the domain of the fervently Orthodox, or haredim, full of restrictions and rules and not a welcoming world where they might one day find their place.

“Israeli secular society is losing its Jewish identity more day by day,” said Yoav, the Tel Aviv University student who talked about Hillel having much to do on his camp and asked that his last name not be used. “Young people in Tel Aviv don’t see Jewish identity as something they need or long for.”

“It may have been hip to be a Zionist in the ’50s or ’60s, but these days we have our own country and many of my friends ask if they will even stay here,” he said. Later, he added: “I fear many people are losing their sense of connection to this place.”

Students also spoke of the stigma that still surrounds Hillel on Israeli campuses. Some students, they said, think it is a religious organization aimed at making the students observant even though it is a nondenominational group that advocates no religious agenda.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Yossie Goldman, director of Hillel Israel, said he was enjoying seeing a renaissance of Jewish student life in Israel.

Proof of that was increased involvement in Hillel-related projects that explore Jewish identity and community social action.

“We tell our students, ‘Interact with your Jewish identity — it’s your heritage and Judaism belongs to every Jew,’ ” he said.

Among the projects done by Hillel at Tel Aviv University, for example, was volunteering at a shelter for battered women, working with children awaiting heart surgery, teaching classes on Jewish texts and justice in a disadvantaged neighborhood, and launching human rights initiatives on campus.

Doron Rubin, the director of Hillel at Tel Aviv University, has seen the focus of the organization’s work shift in the past four years from overseas to local students.

“Our challenge is to reach those students who hear the word Judaism and move to the other side of the street,” he said.

Rubin spoke about the phenomenon of Diaspora Jews using Israel identification as a means to bolster Jewish identity in their own communities.

“Just as Israel is a resource for overseas Judaism, Diaspora Judaism is now a resource for building Jewish identity for many Israelis,” he said.

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