YU aims for ‘cross-pollination’ between its students and Israel
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YU aims for ‘cross-pollination’ between its students and Israel

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Students from YU’s Operation Healthcare service learning initiative play with special- needs children at a park. Avi Rosenbaum of Teaneck is on the right. Photo courtesy Yeshiva University

Never in its 80-year history has Yeshiva University – America’s flagship centrist Orthodox academic institution – expended more resources forging bonds between its students and their Israeli counterparts.

North Jersey natives consistently participate in an ever-expanding array of exchange, advocacy, and service programs in Israel. This winter alone, select students from YU high schools (see accompanying story) and undergrads from the university’s Yeshiva and Stern colleges traveled to Israel on four different programs.

The trend began not just because more than 3,000 YU alumni now live in Israel, or because 800 post-high-school North Americans are studying in independent Israeli yeshivas earning credit as YU undergraduates.

University President Richard M. Joel set the stage for the current emphasis in his 2003 installation address: “The land of Israel and the state of Israel are central to the future of the Jewish people, and have always been central to the reality of the Yeshiva University community,” he said. “Let’s make YU the address in New York for Israel events and Israel conversations.”

To help realize this goal, Joel initiated the founding of the university’s Center for the Jewish Future in 2005 and its Center for Israel Studies in 2007. “I am especially pleased with the large number of students who have decided to take advantage of the innovative Israel missions run by the Center for the Jewish Future,” he said last week.

Bergen County residents were among 35 college students in the CJF’s Project Connect last January, where they interacted with Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to understand the challenges of their absorption. And they were among nearly two dozen volunteer counselors in CJF’s Counterpoint Israel summer camps for low-income children.

This winter, 71 undergraduates – including nine from Teaneck, Fair Lawn, and Passaic – are taking part in CJF winter-break missions in Israel.

Shabbat 2010 explores the complex relationship between Sabbath observance and technology at Israeli hospitals and army bases, as well as the societal tensions the official day of rest causes in a multicultural democracy. Through Operation Healthcare, pre-medical and political science majors are comparing and contrasting the health-care systems of the United States and Israel. Each program includes service components.

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YU students from the Shabbat 2010 men’s group teach Hilchot Shabbat to sixth- and seventh- graders from Gush Etzion. Among them are Ari Selevan, top and Yaakov Taubes, both of Teaneck.

Additionally, 12 undergraduate fellows from the university’s QUEST student leadership program spent a week in the schools and hothouses of former Gush Katif (Gaza) residents now living in the new Negev desert community of Halutza. Sponsored in partnership with the Jewish National Fund, this mission required the group to raise $20,000 toward the construction of houses and public buildings there.

“The primary goal of these and all CJF programs is to inspire our students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large,” said CJF Dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander. The center’s mandate is to “renew and refresh, strengthen and support, and inspire and energize” Jewish communities in North America and around the world.

Comparing specific elements of American and Israeli culture – both religious and secular – is one of the tools CJF uses to raise participants’ awareness of the differences between the two societies, reexamine their values, and ponder their potential to make a positive impact.

The Shabbat 2010 mission, for example, was planned to include Sabbath experiences in Yemenite and chasidic settings, as well as dialogues with Israelis who do not observe the laws of Shabbat.

“Shabbos in the diaspora is a bifurcated experience, not a societal experience as it is in Israel,” said Brander, a Teaneck resident. “But it is also a societal challenge.”

As a result of the mission, he said, “maybe some of the students will make aliyah and create a Shabbos experience for those not yet connected.”

However, the overall aim of such programs is “cross-pollination” rather than aliyah. “We hope the students will internalize these experiences and begin shaping the communal landscape immediately upon their return by educating others about their newfound understandings,” said Brander. “There is a healthy spiritual viral effect to the whole endeavor – for the college students and the high school students as well.”

JNF Campus Programs Manager Rebecca Kahn, a Teaneck native, said the QUEST mission connected rising American Orthodox leaders with JNF’s work in Israel. Last January, she coordinated a similar mission for 120 mostly Conservative college students and young professionals – including six North Jersey residents – who tackled beautification projects in southern development towns.

“Our partnership with Yeshiva University has presented a unique opportunity to work with an exceptional group of students who are already committed to becoming leaders in the Jewish community,” Kahn said. This year’s group included Michelle Grundman of Fair Lawn and Sarit Ben-David of Teaneck.

Grundman said the trip opened her eyes to the possibility of assisting communities far from home, and specifically those in Israel that are outside the better-known Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas. “You see how leaders can bring so much change and growth,” she said.

CJF projects on the drawing board include placing rabbinical interns with local Israeli rabbis to gauge the potential for careers in Israel and further expansion of the Counterpoint Israel summer camps for disadvantaged children. These programs are costly, Brander acknowledged.

“YU is willing to invest in a partnership with Israel, because we want it to be strong and continue to grow,” said Brander. “We are blessed with wonderful visionary partners, Repair the World and the Jim Joseph Foundation, who understand that the greatest incubator to inspire our students is Israel, where people are leading holistic leadership lives affecting Jewish society around the world.”

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