The grandchildren of the generation of Jews who helped build Israel by dropping pennies into the Jewish National Fund’s blue-and-white tin pushkes gathered in Manhattan last week to aid the Jewish state in a more contemporary way – political advocacy with a positive bent.
Some 250 Jewish college students were among the 1,200-plus people from around the country who gathered in Midtown Manhattan last weekend for the four-day JNF National Conference and College Summit. The students had the opportunity to rub elbows with JNF leaders, Israeli entrepreneurs, innovators and politicians — and to discuss challenges facing Israel on their campuses.
The student participation at the sold-out Sept.16-20 gathering was part of the JNF’s “Positively Israel” campaign, which takes the focus away from politics, instead giving attention to how best spread the word about the Jewish state’s positive impacts on the world.
“Israel for me is something that I am such a supporter of, but I don’t love the political debates and I couldn’t connect to the sitting there and hashing out the ‘this is our history and these are our values’ now,’” said Carly Sobol, a JNF campus ambassador from Ohio State University who led a conversation with attorney and Israel activist Alan M. Dershowitz after Friday night dinner.
“The fight back and forth of facts and opinions was not for me,” she continued. “We see these headlines in the media all the time of all of this negativity … there’s also so much more to the story. There’s so many other things going on.”
She got involved with JNF during her first year at college after a JNF campus fellow made an announcement about “a free community service trip to Israel” during “a normal Friday night Shabbat dinner at Hillel.”
“I was sold,” she said. “I went on the alternative break trip freshman year, came back and knew that I wanted to do more.”
The JNF Campus Fellows program, which creates a team of fellows across the country that represents JNF and its programs to the campus community, aims to introduce students to the 115-year-old organization’s unique voice in the effort to build a prosperous future for the people of Israel.
While many national Jewish organizations are wary of investing too heavily in the college set because most will likely not be able to donate to the organization until they reach their 30s or 40s, JNF has increasingly devoted attention to millennials over the past decade. And it turns out that the nonprofit’s mission of finding new ways to improve the land of Israel and its citizens has struck a cord with the next generation.
“Most of the other [organizations] focus on … how to try to improve public opinion of Israel and how to combat anti-Israel behavior,” said Jonathan Tobin, 20, a JNF Campus Fellow at Binghamton University who is in his senior year. “The JNF was mostly doing things in Israel. They don’t talk about it as much as they actually do things.”
Students are also drawn to JNF’s lack of dogma.
“I just feel like it’s one of those organizations where it’s not ‘you have to think this certain way, you have to behave this certain way,’” said Morgan Siegel, 21, a JNF Campus Fellow at NYU. “There’s so many different ways to be pro-Israel; there’s so many different ways to express how you feel and deal with issues. It’s not about combatting these issues and anti-Israel organizations, it’s about being positive and not fighting and shedding light.”
As for the four-day conference, Siegel said it left her wiped out. But she has no regrets. “We probably had about 14-hour-days for three days,” she said. “But I’ve been talking and following up with a bunch of other students, and we all single-handedly agree it was worth the exhaustion.”