Creating Jewish leaders on campus

Creating Jewish leaders on campus

Nitzavim Fellowship helps  gap-year students prepare for hostility at schools

These are the 2024 on-campus Nitzavim fellows. (Kira Kletsky)
These are the 2024 on-campus Nitzavim fellows. (Kira Kletsky)

Maayan Koenig of Bergenfield is scheduled to begin Barnard College next fall, following a gap year in Israel at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim.

Understandably, the 19-year-old Frisch graduate feels unsettled by the anti-Jewish, anti-Israel demonstrations roiling the Barnard-Columbia campus these days.

But she feels better prepared for whatever hostilities she may encounter, due to the On-Campus Nitzavim Fellowship.

During this Jerusalem-based program, held in partnership with Hebrew University, 80 gap-year students spend three hours, one Friday per month, learning about Israel and its history as well as the issues and threats Jewish students face at secular universities and the challenges of retaining their Jewish identity on campus. The fellows also participate in trips and events such as Shabbatons.

In addition, they work in groups, both in class and independently, to create projects they can implement on their future campuses to address issues they examined.

“When they came to speak to us at MMY to recruit fellows, I was really interested,” Ms. Koenig said.

“I wanted to be well prepared to go to Barnard next year with the facts on the Israel-Palestinian situation. I liked the idea of being in an environment of other students who will be on American campuses next year after a gap year in Israel. And Nitzavim has great speakers and business mentors and a community I can reach out to for support.”

She said that she also feels supported by the promise of alumni campus visits by Rabbi Adi Isaacs, director for the past 12 years of Jewish Year Abroad, the independent, privately funded nonprofit organization that runs Nitzavim Fellowship and other supplemental gap-year programs.

“I have never been so horrified by antisemitic sentiments on college campuses,” Rabbi Isaacs wrote in a recent social-media post. “I speak to many students on campus, and one student shared that she has been a very active voice for the Jewish community on campus and received tremendous backlash. She was shaken up by personal threats as well as calls on her campus to globalize the intifada.

“While it’s scary and difficult to hear, this very threat is what makes our mission at Jewish Year Abroad more important than ever. I am proud to be a part of creating Jewish student leaders on college campuses who will stand up against antisemitism and spread the light about Israel and Judaism.”

The program’s students from North Jersey and MetroWest this year are Alexandra Nadritch, Oran Goodman, Jonah Siegler, Jessie Horowitz, and Emma Susman of Englewood; Shira Kaplan of Teaneck; and Eitan Bitansky of Springfield. Netanya Greiff, Nitzavim Fellowship’s director, made aliyah from West Caldwell three years ago.

“This is the third year of the program, and obviously it’s more relevant than ever,” Ms. Greiff said.

Shira Kaplan, right, of Teaneck, and Ariella Hertz of Lawrence, N.Y., on a Nitzavim trip to Kfar Adumim in the Judean desert. (Nitzavim)

“This year we’ve paired each group with a student mentor who participated in Nitzavim and now is on the campus they’re going to next year. This mentor can give them the inside scoop about what will or will not work on their campus. The other new aspect is that we are pairing the project groups with professional mentors, who can give them critical feedback from a business perspective.”

Like startup entrepreneurs, the fellows work with their business mentors to articulate their mission, vision, and values statement; conduct market research; and build an implementation plan including branding and design elements.

Ms. Koenig and two other Barnard-bound fellows are working with mentor Danielle Renov, the “Peas, Love & Carrots” food blogger, on their “Chicken Soup for the Soul” project, which would enable any Jewish Columbia/Barnard student to receive homemade chicken soup when they’re feeling under the weather. “We’ll deliver it along with a card explaining the Jewish value of visiting the sick,” Ms. Koenig said.

She said that the Nitzavim sessions on public speaking and programming have provided her with “skills that will come in handy as I expect to have a role in the campus Jewish community.

“A lot of speakers talked about how to handle hostility on campus. It’s for sure overwhelming to see what’s going on, but the Jewish community at Columbia seems really strong, and hopefully they will stick together as a strong communal force.”

Ms. Kaplan, 18, a Ma’ayanot graduate now studying at Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash in Migdal Oz, plans to go to Brandeis next year.

“We’ve gotten a lot of education on common misconceptions about Israel we might hear on campus, and how to respond,” she said. “For example, we talked about the security barrier, which is often called the ‘apartheid wall,’ and learned why Israel implemented it in the first place.

“I also learned that some people are not worth getting into a conversation with, and we should just walk away. We can judge the situation by the tone of their voice and whether they are actually listening or just repeating the same thing over and over.”

Ms. Kaplan already had a good grounding in these issues; she’d participated for four school years in the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s five-session iCan LEAP leadership program, which prepares high school students for opportunities and challenges ahead.

“The project I’m working on to help the Brandeis Jewish community is about fostering interfaith dialogue,” she said. “Jewish communities tend to isolate themselves, and we need to encounter people of different religions and backgrounds. This actually can help Israel’s cause.”

Mr. Bitansky, an 18-year-old Kushner graduate studying at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah in Modi’in, had intended to go to the University of Maryland in the fall. However, during his gap year he decided to make aliyah and now plans to serve in the IDF.

But he’s still working with other fellows heading to the University of Maryland on the details of a project focused on shared Shabbat meals as a means of “bridging different types of Jews, from very religious to nonaffiliated, and try to get them to become more of a cohesive community on campus.”

Mr. Bitansky said he learned in Nitzavim that the overwhelming majority of Jewish college students are unaffiliated.

He anticipates that the skills and information he’s gaining through the fellowship will be useful even though he’s not going to college in the United States.

“In general, we learned to work with others and create and implement an idea,” he said. “Even in Israel, there is a lot of strife between Jewish communities, and we have to think about how to solve those issues.”

Ms. Greiff said that the Nitzavim Fellowship program will not end in June; the fellows will have the opportunity to attend a summer session to further hone their preparedness for the campus experience.

The 80 fellows are heading to 25 different schools, many of them at the forefront of pro-Palestinian protests. Eleven of them are going to the University of Maryland, 11 to SUNY Binghamton, and nine to New York University.

The other schools are Barnard, Case Western Reserve, City College of New York, Columbia, Cooper Union, George Washington, Macaulay Honors College (CUNY), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nottingham Trent (in England), Old Dominion, Princeton, Queens College, Rutgers, Tulane, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale.

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