(New York Jewish Week) — Like so many Jews across the country, Ruthie Yudelson was celebrating Shabbat and the holiday of Shemini Atzeret when the news began to trickle in about terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.
A junior at New York University, Yudelson, 21, was with her peers at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, which houses the school’s Hillel, when the news broke. Immediately, people were trying to piece together what little bits of information they could from friends and family in Israel, she recalled.
By the afternoon, Yudelson had organized a group of students to say Tehillim, or Psalms, which Jews recite on behalf of the sick and in times of danger. “I expected it to be some five or six people,” Yudelson said. To her surprise, 25 students showed up to sing, talk and be together.
That small crowd on Saturday afternoon, Yudelson said, was the first hint of the potential organizing power of her campus community, something that the Jewish students demonstrated again just over a week later. Beginning at midnight on Sunday, Yudelson and a group of fellow Jewish NYU students came together for “24 hours of service” to raise money for Israel via UJA-Federation New York’s Israel Emergency Fund, which disseminated some $22 million in grants to Israeli nonprofits as of Monday.
At the end of the fundraiser, at midnight on Monday, the initiative, which involved some 40 students, raised $22,000 from donors Yudelson described as a mix of “friends, family, local businesses and nonprofit philanthropies.”
“We see in the students’ eyes a ton of anger, fear, sadness and angst. Nobody’s able to sleep or eat or go to class,” said sophomore Benji Meppen, a co-organizer of the event. “We wanted to capitalize on that and say let’s take that nervous energy and put it towards something good. Let’s be in the building, let’s be in community, Let’s be together and raise money while doing something meaningful.”
Yudelson and a team of fellow undergrads — Meppen, Jake Bengelsdorf, Adina Levin and Zoe Kimmelman — began organizing the fundraiser last Tuesday, pitching potential donors on a 24-hour event. Students would work on a variety of volunteer projects at the Bronfman Center — including writing cards for Israeli soldiers, staffing a support hotline for students affected by the war and knitting baby clothes for attack victims. They also committed to studying Torah and saying Tehillim in memory of the victims. While the students engaged in that activism, donors would sponsor their efforts and send money to the UJA’s Israel Emergency Fund.
“What we’re aiming to do is to bring people together, not just around concepts of solidarity but around practical, actionable good,” Yudelson told the New York Jewish Week Monday as the fundraiser reached its midpoint. “The idea is that we can make cards for displaced children, we can bake rice krispie treats for soldiers’ families and we can write letters to individuals grieving terror attacks — and that people will be inspired by these actions in a way that compels them to donate actual effective amounts of money.”
Throughout Sunday night and Monday, “there’s been a lot of energy, and it’s been really great to see,” Meppen said. “Personally, I find every moment that I’m not doing something, I sit on my couch or sit on my bed and look at the news or I read WhatsApp that I don’t want to read. I become incredibly angry and sad just as everybody else is. It’s been great to stay in the building and do something meaningful.”
Yudelson, a environmental sociology major, holds a variety of leadership positions within the Bronfman Center, including at the Israel Journal, an online publication at the school “dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel,” as well as in the school’s Orthodox and Conservative Jewish student groups. She also works as a service engagement intern at the center, organizing community service programs throughout the year. Meppen, a film major, is on the student executive board of NYU Hillel and is the co-president of the Israel Journal.
Following the attacks, Yudelson — a Teaneck, New Jersey native who also has Israeli citizenship — said that she immediately began to think about how the Bronfman Center could become a space where students can express feelings, gather information and come together in a particularly fraught time. “The first way that this uncertainty and fear was metabolized for me was communally,” she said.
“I have a lot of cousins who are fighting in Gaza. I have friends from high school, people that I grew up with who are in a tank right now,” Meppen, who is from Los Angeles, said. “For me, to be a 19-year-old in film school, I feel rather meaningless. We hope that this event will help relieve people of some of those feelings while still raising money for UJA.”
NYU has been one of a handful of campuses across the country that has drawn scrutiny in the wake of Hamas’ attack, largely after the president of the law school’s Student Bar Association wrote a letter in the school’s newsletter stating, among other things, that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.”
But Yudelson says the Bronfman Center fundraiser hasn’t yet faced the same kind of pushback. The wider NYU community has been supportive, she said.
Yudelson surmised that the reason for the lack of criticism is that the fundraiser is focused on humanitarian aid, or because it is not “the most political” as far campus actions go, although she did stress that “all the aid that we are collecting is going to Israel.” She also said she wasn’t sure how much the larger undergraduate campus population was aware that the fundraiser was happening.
“It’s been wonderful to be a part of,” Yudelson said. “Right now it is a very weird time in our current cultural moment and it’s hard to be hopeful, but being a part of this fundraiser, I’ve been mostly hopeful and excited.”
For college students — who tend to have low bank account balances — “it’s hard to imagine ourselves as having any sort of effective or important piece in the larger geopolitical struggles happening right now,” she said.
But that does not mean that they should not try, said Meppen. “As Jewish college students in New York City, we can choose to take an active role in this conflict and ensure the future Jewish people,” he said. “I’m very happy that we are currently doing that as we speak.”