One year ago, I decided to leave my small and pretty Jerusalem to be an Israel Fellow of the Jewish Agency in the United States on a college campus. After a Skype conversation with Sue Kurtz, the Director of Hillel at Virginia Tech, I decided that this is where I wanted to serve. Sue’s passion and excitement about the Jewish life on campus was infectious. When I came to Virginia Tech, I realized that there are not many students who know much about Israel, in the same way that I did not know much about the Jewish community in Blacksburg, Virginia. I wanted to change this! I understood that I needed to be the positive connection to Israel for my students.
I believed, and I still believe, that a real connection to Israel via an Israel Fellow can be created only when a shaliah truly wants to be the friend of a student and create a meaningful relationship. An Israel Fellow must put helping students into their daily routine—something that is not always easy. Then, the miracle emerges. The shaliah is really interested in the student's life, and in the same moment, the student becomes interested in a topic that is important to the shaliah. The student starts asking about Israel, about our life there, and why Israel should be important for him as well.
Trust and caring between an Israel Fellow and a student—this is what creates a positive connection to Israel in the future. Our Hillel understands the importance of personal relationships with the students. That is why our little Hillel team, including Executive Director Sue Kurtz, and coordinators Isabel Shocket and Anya Morgullis, stay at our Hillel Center late into the night most of the time. We want to be with the students, to listen to them, and to get them to feel at home here, with Hillel.
Of course, when students start being interested in Israel we have to be professionally prepared. Last year, we created a pro-Israel club on campus called Friends of Israel. The club’s goal was to offer the campus an avenue to discover the culture and traditions of Israeli society. This year, I started giving private Hebrew lessons to the students. A special program about Israel for Jewish students in Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets has been started, too. The goal of this program is teaching Jewish students, who are also Cadets on campus about Israel politics and security. The program teaches in-depth concepts about Israel and can be a great basic for knowledge about Israel for future Jewish Officers in the American Army.
Israel has become part of our Hillel. We don't have a huge Israeli flag outside of the building. We also don't have students who know everything about Israel and speak fluent Hebrew. It is something different. It is their curiosity about life in Israel, their deep and meaningful questions, and their passion to go on a Birthright trip that connects our Hillel students to Israel.
It is a especially enhanced by Sue and her team's attitude toward Israel. For example, last year, when our new, beautiful Malcolm Rosenberg Hillel Center was opened for the first time and many details needed to be completed, Sue insisted that everything in the building (notices, blessings, etc.) need to be written in Hebrew in addition to English. In all the balagan of the Hillel Center’s dedication, Sue did not give up on this. Sue’s husband, Jeff Kurtz, who is a chef in the Hillel Kosher kitchen, makes Israeli food and traditional dishes for the Shabbat dinner, which attracts about 75 students weekly.
And most of all, today, when students speak about Israel and Israelis, the students don't say "they." The students have started to use the word "we." They have started to understand that we are a part of the same nation, and we belong to the same history and future.
But for me, to be an Israel Fellow is not only the way to strengthen a connection of American students to Israel. This is also the way to understand who they are, the American Jews. In what ways we are different, in what ways we are the same, and how, in the future, we will continue to build up our common culture and history. This position helps me to understand that in Israel, we have to be attentive to what happens with Jews in the world. We must try to create a future of Israel according to a vision of all the Jews over the world, not only according to the Israeli vision. After all, Israel belongs to all of us. This is probably the main sentence I would like to transfer to our students.
Ivan Goncharenko is the Israel Fellow at Hillel at Virginia Tech, second year.
Ivan was born in Ukraine. His family moved to Israel when he was 10 years old. He studied International Relations and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ivan served in the elite Israeli K-9 Unit, as a combatant and an NCO (non-commissioned officer).