The battle in defense of Israel on the Rutgers campus is being joined, and Rutgers Hillel is hiring the professionals to lead it.
“It’s not enough to respond to the delegitimization attacks and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel. “We need to be prepared, not only with a strategic response, we need to be educating and engaging our students about Israel before it’s time to respond.
“Let them respond to us,” he said.
To be pro-active in making the pro-Israel case, Rutgers is creating a new Center for Israel Advocacy and Engagement. Funding for its director, who has not yet been hired, is coming from all the New Jersey Jewish federations. Locally, the board of trustees of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey formally signed off on the allocation – about a quarter of the position’s budget – last Wednesday night.
Additionally, Hillel has hired a shaliach, or Israel representative, who will work directly with students. This position is being funded by the co-founders of Bed, Bath, and Beyond -Warren Eisenberg and Leonard Feinstein.
“Students are looking to understand Israel,” said Getraer. “They’re looking to understand what’s going on there. And if we don’t provide them with the information, the opponents of Israel will.
“We look at this as something the entire Jewish community has a stake in, a service Hillel is providing in partnership with the federations and organizations such as Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League,” he said.
As part of that partnership, on Wednesday, Hillel hosted a statewide conference on the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and the community’s response organized by state-wide and national Jewish umbrella organizations: The New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations and the Israel Action Network, a national response to the delegitimization campaign created by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The invitation-only event brought together 75 representatives from across the state to create “local and state-wide action plans to counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy.”
David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president of UJA-NNJ, agreed that it was imperative that Hillel have the resources to set the agenda rather than just respond.
“It’s really essential, not only in terms of advancing Israel’s cause but in terms of the kinds of feelings we want to instill in Jewish students on campus,” he said. “It’s really important that our state-wide Jewish community support the efforts by Rutgers Hillel to enhance their Israel advocacy infrastructure.”
He also noted that “northern New Jersey has one of the largest Jewish student populations at Rutgers, which made it all the more important that our federation support that initiative.”
The two new Israel-focused professionals join a staff that this past year numbered six full-time and two part-time employees, as well as two part-time graduate student interns. Hillel estimates that Rutgers has 6,000 Jewish students, 5,000 of them undergraduates, making it the fourth-largest Jewish student body nationwide.
One of the new positions has been filled by Israel emissary Lihi Rothschild. Her role will be to build personal relationships with students, literally bringing them the “face” of Israel. She will be working with students on a variety of Israel cultural and political events and will also assist with recruiting for the two Birthright trips run by Hillel. The Birthright trip over winter break sends 40 students and the trip at the start of summer vacation brings 20 to 40 students. Hillel hopes to see those numbers increase.
The emissary will also work with the Hebrew Speakers Club and will be a resource for students on campus in general who want to learn about Israel.
To head the Israel advocacy center, said Getraer, “We’re looking for someone who can work with our students to strategize the appropriate Israel programs and events and education for our students, someone who can strategize with the larger Jewish community, with our federation and community partners, who understands the dynamics of a university as well as the Jewish community as a whole, and can lead our students and be led by them.
This will be a cutting-edge position, he added.
“There are Israel fellows on other campuses, but not really a position like this. We hope it will be a model for larger Hillels throughout the country. Once it is proven successful, some of the strategies and structures we use can be replicated on other campuses. We believe we can help set the pace in standing up for Israel on college campuses,” he said