In early November, I travelled to Israel as part of an exciting new partnership designed to address a fundamental challenge of Israel advocacy: connecting returning gap year students with their pro-Israel campus community. At first glance, this doesn’t look like that big a deal. All we need to do – all anyone needs to do - is collect some email addresses, alert the right people, and BAM! new activists with significant Israel experiences appear on campus, ready and willing to build strategic relationships for Israel.
Of course, it’s not that easy. It’s really not that easy. Up until this point, the Jewish community has not had significant systems in place to foster the connection between high school/gap year Israel experiences and the college campus. In short, there was no one to aid in the transition from one formative experience to the other, no one to say to a new freshman, “Hey, I know you had an amazing time on YJ/Nativ/Aardvark/etc. Now that you’re on campus, let’s talk about your Israel experience and see how you can use that to connect with the larger campus community.” The onus has been placed entirely on the new student to find the right connection; there is no dedicated team in place to continue to build a relationship between the student and Israel during this turbulent time. College freshmen are overwhelmed by choice – clubs, classes, internships, and jobs compete for attention, and it’s easy to put aside old passions for new hobbies, new friends, or studying calculus in the library. In not effectively managing the returning student’s relationship with Israel and failing to help bridge the gap between Israel and college, the pro-Israel community loses valuable activists and relationship builders. Unfortunately, the chance of reconnecting with them second semester or even junior year is slim.
In response to this need to connect to students while their Israel experiences are fresh, The Schusterman Family Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation awarded The David Project and AIPAC a major grant. Our challenge was to create dynamic programming that showcased opportunities on campus for new freshmen, to illustrate how the experiences students were having every day in Bat Yam, Jerusalem, and Arad would allow them to connect new friends, classmates, and professors to Israel. Just as importantly, we needed to create a pipeline, a way of fostering early connections with campuses so that students could jump right into Israel activism on campus. With that mandate, I travelled to Israel with Jonathan Kessler, AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. Facilitated by Ari Applbaum, The David Project’s Israel Operations Director, Jonathan and I ran programming for American students throughout Israel. Jonathan’s expertise on the recent American elections was welcomed by students and staff alike; his ability to break down the mechanisms of government to show students how important their Israel experiences are to members of Congress was captivating and inspiring. We focused our presentation on storytelling, on encouraging students to be reflective of their day to day experiences in Israel, and how they could translate everyday life to stories friends and relatives would relate to upon their return. We all spoke with students about how necessary their help is to the campus community, how much we need them to be leaders for Israel on campus.
All the students we spoke with were eager to hear more about the opportunities ahead. Students want to be involved with Israel on campus, they want to share their stories and their Jewish values. We have student buy-in, and we have financial support (although more is better). Now, it’s up to us and our partners to help build a practical support network that will successfully transition gap year students to campus activism.
And with that, I throw the question out to our readers: were you gap year students who transitioned to Israel activism on your college campus? What worked and what didn’t? How can we be effective in building networks among students with shared Israel experiences? Please share your stories and suggestions with us!