The evolution of a student leader

The evolution of a student leader

Ben Sherman of Short Hills reacts to October 7 with activism at UT Austin

Ben Sherman holds an Israeli flag as he stands on campus at the University of Texas in Austin.
Ben Sherman holds an Israeli flag as he stands on campus at the University of Texas in Austin.

At 19, Ben Sherman of Short Hills already has a long list of Jewish leadership accomplishments to his credit.

He was president of the Jewish Cultural Society at the Montclair Kimberley Academy. He was treasurer of the Rosenblatt Family Hillel in his freshman year at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

When he transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, joining his twin sister there, Mr. Sherman joined a Jewish fraternity and became a student board member of Texas Chabad, an Israel student leader of Texas Hillel, and a project manager in Tamid Group, a multicampus movement that two University of Michigan students started in 2008 as they looked for an alternative means of connection to Israel.

He also joined the TLV-ATX Founder’s Club, a group encompassing Israeli and American Jewish entrepreneurs and founders in Austin.

Yet the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7 convinced him there was more to be done.

“Everyone was shocked and nobody knew what was happening,” he recalled. “I saw there were vigils being held at Michigan and Tulane and other schools with large Jewish populations, and I felt at UT there wasn’t a platform for students by students.

“So on the night of October 8, I sat on my bed and made a flyer asking people to meet at the University Tower the next evening. In 20 hours, a friend and I organized a candlelight vigil that drew 600 students, administrators, and faculty.”

Carrying candles and Israeli flags, the crowd caught the attention of local media, and Mr. Sherman understood the potential for meaningful follow-up.

In the weeks after the vigil, he and three cofounders formed Longhorn Students for Israel and gained official recognition by the university.

The group has an executive board of nine students, and an advisory team of 10 that includes Austin Jewish community leaders, alumni, and parents.

Longhorn Students for Israel raised $18,000 in under a week from over 100 contributors and brought a survivor of the Supernova music festival in southern Israel to speak at Chabad in front of 120 attendees. Several administrators attended the screening and thanked Mr. Sherman afterward. He recalled that their eyes filled with tears at the atrocities they saw in the film.

At Texas Hillel, in cooperation with the Israeli Consulate, the group showed a documentary about the murders, kidnappings and attacks at Supernova on October 7.

Then, as sympathy toward Israel and outrage toward Hamas started reversing at campuses across the country, Longhorns for Israel got even busier.

“Our campus was fairly quiet at the beginning,” Mr. Sherman said. “The Palestine Solidarity Committee is the largest anti-Israel group on our campus, supported by Jewish Voice for Peace and other anti-Israel groups. We did not see them in full thrall until about a month ago, when protests started popping up on campus and they posted on Instagram that they stand with friends at Columbia.”

For several weeks until the end of the semester, PSC hosted events every day. “Jewish students were told by PSC protesters to go back to Poland, that they’ll come after us and put us in ovens. A student leader and two faculty leaders refused, on video, to answer if Hamas is a terrorist organization. A Jewish professor told us, ‘They’re gonna come after you and put you in the ovens next,’ and he has yet to be arrested or fired.

“So it was time for us to get busy. Most of our university administrators are not Jewish, and it’s our responsibility to send them content and resources so the situation could be handled more effectively in comparison to other universities,” he said.

“We pushed administrators, board, and police — we have incredible relationships with them — to take care of this.”

UT Austin dismantled encampments swiftly, and the police arrested about 150 protesters. “Over half of them were not students, and the police found double-digit amounts of guns on arrested protesters,” Mr. Sherman said.

“We are forever grateful to the governor and the university president, chancellor, and administrators. We are on the best of the worst of the campuses, and that’s a great thing.

“But at the same time, there’s a problem. The faculty members supporting Hamas need to go. The external violence has to go.”

Arming themselves with facts gathered daily from a variety of reliable sources, including IDF spokespeople, pro-Israel students showed up at every protest, holding Israeli flags, to “explain the reality to random students who have no idea what’s going on — because not a lot of people really know what’s going on, including the anti-Israel protesters,” Mr. Sherman said.

“We had incredible discussions with students and adults, including Asian and Indian students and Caucasians from the middle of Texas. When they show up and are willing to listen, we can see their minds processing what we tell them.

“There is no way to quantify how successful those conversations are, but we need to keep a positive mindset about our work and try to make a tangible impact without losing momentum.”

By the end of the school year, Longhorn Students for Israel had engaged over 2,000 students at events and given more than 100 interviews to local and national news outlets, including Fox, ABC, NBC, CNN, Forbes, NPR, the New York Times, and the BBC.

Mr. Sherman also is one of the founding leaders of Restore our Campus Coalition, made up of student leaders of Israel advocacy groups on 60-plus campuses around the country. They work to pass national legislation demanding that universities take decisive action to safeguard Jews and Jewish life on campuses, prevent attempts to delegitimize Israel and those who support Israel, and enforce university codes of conduct among organizations and individuals who seek to marginalize Jews, Jewish life, and Zionists on campus.

Though his sophomore year is over, Mr. Sherman is still working with his board to build up relationships with other local and national organizations.

But his participation is from afar. He’s been in Israel since May 19, starting with a 10-day Birthright Israel tour. A week later, he began a Birthright Israel Excel Fellowship. He’s one of 60 fellows, selected from thousands of applicants, living and working in Tel Aviv this summer. He’s interning at Evercore, a global investment banking firm.

Mr. Sherman is majoring in Chinese language and culture with minors in business and entrepreneurship.

“I’d never heard of Excel before attending UT Austin,” he said. “One of my friends mentioned it to me, and I did research in September and decided this is what I wanted to do the next summer. I applied and was accepted in early November.

“Excel is the most incredible community of students from top universities around the world, and we have exposure to business leaders such as the CEOs of El Al and Goldman Sachs in Israel. I’m confident I’ll come out of this experience a better person with a deeper level of understanding on a professional level and friendships that will last a lifetime.”

He’s already got a few of those friendships from his Birthright tour.

He’s still in touch with the seven IDF soldiers who accompanied his group, young men and women his age who are serving their country before continuing on to college and careers.

“Before Birthright started, I wasn’t sure how I could have a stronger connection to Israel than I already have,” he said. “I could not have been more wrong, in the best way possible. My respect and interest in Israel has increased tenfold.”

Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark said: “In light of the recent escalation on college campuses, in which Jewish students are being threatened daily, it is imperative, now more than ever, for young Jews — and especially Jewish students — to have a strong sense of community through Birthright programs. We want them to visit the must-see sites, engage in open dialogues about the global surge in antisemitism within a secure environment, interact with Israelis and witness firsthand our society’s resilience amidst adversity. Having come to Israel with questions, they will leave with a deeper understanding.”

For Mr. Sherman, the most impactful stop on the tour was the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.

“It was the most moving experience in my life,” he said, to see tombstones of 19- and 20-year-olds, new graves open and ready for more soldiers’ coffins, a woman mourning next to the fresh grave of her brother, and IDF platoons paying respects to their fallen friends.

The group also went to Sderot on the Gaza border; to the site of the Supernova music festival; and to the area where hundreds of burned cars are still being combed over by forensic teams.

“To see where everything happened, to smell the burned ash that still lingers on cars, is not an experience everyone gets to have,” he said. “We saw Hummers drive by with special forces coming out of Gaza. On top of a hill, we looked 800 meters over the border into Gaza.

“People say the IDF doesn’t care about children, but if you saw it as we did, you’d see the IDF has more respect for civilians than any military in the world. The soldiers say this too. They asked us, ‘Why does everyone hate us? We’re just trying to protect our own people.’ It’s the most justified war that’s ever been fought. They don’t want to do it, but if it needs to happen, it needs to happen.”

The Birthright group happened to be in Tel Aviv on May 26, when rockets from Gaza forced locals into bomb shelters. And they were in Jerusalem the following day, when a terrorist stabbed someone at the Jaffa Gate just two hours after they had left that spot.

“All you can do is be thankful and appreciative,” Mr. Sherman said, adding that he is proud of his decision to come to Israel “during this meaningful and sensitive time. I’m here and I’m happy.”

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