"I left as an Israeli and returned as a Jew." This is a sentence you can often hear from participants in Hillel's Peoplehood Initiatives or programs such as "Birthright" or Israel Fellows.
In Israel in 2014 the concepts of Judaism or Jewish Identity are negatively charged. They are often connected to political parties and to topics such as religious coercion and "Tshuva." Average Israeli secular students associate the exploration of Judaism as a religious act to which they don't identify and perceive themselves as "just Israeli." In doing so, they often miss the many shades of Judaism, the sense of community and the exploration of personal identity which enriches the soul and mind.
When does this dichotomous perspective change? It changes when Israeli students meet with non-Israeli Jewish students. The Israelis learn from their peers from abroad, even without noticing, what it means to be part of a community. They learn about pluralism and accepting the "other." Following these encounters, we often hear students say, "I started this experience as an Israeli and ended it as a Jew." Hillel at Ben Gurion University (BGU) aims to facilitate experiences which will help the Israeli student view Judaism as a multi-faceted concept. We aim to help students realize that Judaism is a religion but it is also a shared history, culture, philosophy, and above all-a family.
Working for Hillel Israel in general, and specifically at Hillel BGU gives me the opportunity to take a leading role in changing the Israeli mind-set. Now, when different voices are heard in the Knesset and there is a growing public discussion on the place and importance of the Torah to the Jewish People, I feel my work is more relevant and important than ever.
Students in Israeli Society have trouble accepting the notion that they can study Rambam and not observe Shabbat. Working at Hillel for me is a mission. It's a place where I can help the students realize they, too, have a Jewish story and that they, too, have a way of connecting to a wider concept of Judaism.
This kind of work requires thought, creativity and focus. In order to engage students we have to carefully select our words and carefully create opportunities for them to encounter Judaism's many perspectives. Two such opportunities created for students this year are:
- “Shabbat Around the World" - Shabbat dinners for Israelis on campus are not a huge attraction but doing so with non-Israeli peers certainly is. This shared cultural experience has been very popular among our students and has proven to be a natural way to bring them together.
- "Ehad Ha'am" – is a Peoplehood Beit Midrash which combines volunteer work at the local absorption center with bi-weekly learning sessions. While volunteering, students are exposed to the traditions and concepts of Jews from around the world and during their study sessions they discuss the concept of "Peoplehood"-how it is formed and how to maintain it.
Working for Hillel interests me in many different levels. It allows me to learn a lot about Israeli Society, about the Jewish People and about the connection between the two. For me, the most important aspect of my work is the ability to influence our society and to help other students realize they, too, have a Jewish story they might not yet know or fully understand.
On a personal note, after years of working in Jewish education with youth from abroad, I find myself for the first time working with Israeli university students. Working at Hillel feels like a natural continuation of my life journey and the process I personally went through realizing that Judaism is more than a religion. The story of the Jewish People is broader than the borders of the State of Israel.
Odelia Shternberg is the Director of Hillel at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva Israel, where she has worked since January 2013. She grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Beer Sheva to study for her BA degree in Psychology. She graduated in 2012. Odelia has fallen in love with the beauty of the Negev, its social life and social activism.