In Florida, Conference is Epitome of Collaboration


Published in Israel Campus BeatMarch 15, 2013

Pro-Israel students at the University of Florida (UF) are gearing up to host the second annual Florida Loves Israel conference next month, providing an opportunity for the school to showcase support for Israel and to show hundreds of students and community members from across the state the best of discussions, workshops and cultural activities focused on enhancing Israel’s standing on Florida campuses..

It’s no surprise that UF, the American public university with the largest undergraduate Jewish population as ranked by Reform Judaism Magazine, was selected to host the conference, slated to take place April 12-14. Israel activism penetrates the social dialogue on the UF campus, with multiple pro-Israel groups coordinating weekly activities, programs and socials.

Most notably, various Israel-focused student groups collaborated to organize a “UF Stands with Israel” rally in response to the Gaza rocket crisis last November. More than 200 students congregated in Turlington Plaza for two hours, where they waved Israeli flags and signs in support of Israel, sang Hebrew songs and chanted “UF stands with Israel.”

“Other schools look to UF as a model for successful Israel activism and advocacy,” Jewish Student Union President Joseph Pardo said. “We’ve fostered relationships with allies in Student Government and managed to coexist with Students for Justice in Palestine by sticking to our methodology and structure.”

Jewish Student Union (JSU), the largest Jewish club on campus, serves as an umbrella organization. In addition to offering its own programming, it directs students to other groups whose missions match individual interests. JSU is a student-run organization dedicated to bringing Jews together through social, educational and advocacy programming.

During Israel Month last November, JSU hosted Israeli movie screenings, rabbi-led discussions and Israel-themed bonfires in order to build and encourage students’ connections to Judaism and Israel.

“UF is a unique situation,” Pardo said. “With the large number of Jewish students, supporting Israel becomes less of a movement and more of an identity. It’s not just a group of people presenting a niche view; it’s become the norm on campus and gives Jewish students a way to connect with their heritage.”

While planning the Florida Loves Israel conference, JSU is working closely with a new organization on campus, Zionist Gators (ZG). Formed as the successor to the former Israel Student Organization, ZG was founded last spring to help build a strong Jewish and Zionist community at the UF that supports a secure, vibrant, Jewish and democratic Israel.

As opposed to JSU, which provides broad Jewish and Israeli programming, ZG concentrates on planning cultural programs, promoting Israel-visit opportunities and teaching advocacy skills to help students disseminate facts about Israel throughout campus.

ZG Vice President Ely Benhamo stressed the importance of UF Israel groups working together cohesively.

“We try to collaborate with organizations that have similar visions to ours so that we can achieve our goals and reach as many students as possible,” Benhamo said. “Even if we have different views than other Israel organizations about certain topics, we always look at the bigger picture of instilling a sense of Zionism in everyone we come across. Even if we have different ways of getting there, our greater goal is the same.”

One group Benhamo hopes the Zionist Gators can collaborate with in the future is Gators For Israel (GFI). UF’s political lobbying group, GFI is a student organization under the JSU umbrella that works to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by involving students in the political process. During Israel Month, GFI was instrumental in helping to plan the UF Stands with Israel rally that took place in response to the recent Gaza conflict. This type of advocacy meshed effortlessly with GFI’s main focus of creating trusting relationships with Student Government senators in order to educate them on issues and solidify Student Government’s support of Israel.

“None of the Student Government executive board members were Jewish or had any ties to Israel last year,” Pardo said. “But because of our educational efforts and relationship building, they stand proudly behind Israel.”

Pardo said the work of JSU, ZG and GFI would be nearly impossible without Student Government funding, supported and approved by students each year. And while funding flows accordingly to campus Israel causes, organization leaders occasionally find themselves at odds with each other when it comes to distributing the money fairly.

In times of disagreement about funding or programming, it helps to have advisors like The David Project’s senior campus coordinator Avital Kranz, who encourages collaboration between campus Israel leaders. Kranz understands that although the groups each have their own goals, it’s important for club leaders to appreciate the diversity of the work being done and create an effective communication culture so efforts can be streamlined.

“My job is to bring student leaders to the table to have conversations about why we’re all here for same reason,” Kranz said. “We try to figure out how we can, as a team, have the most impact on campus.”

UF Israel Fellow Josh Kahn agreed that cohesive collaboration is the key to successful Israel advocacy and activism on campus.

“Fostering relationships between these Israel groups is what ensures that our campus’ activism can remain sustainable,” Kahn said. “Relationship-building is what fuels our programs, and constant communication is vital to making sure we’re not wasting time with overlapping programming. Creating these strong bonds between clubs means we can put our best efforts forward, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every year.”