Hillel partners with Masa Israel Journey, an organization that connects Jewish young adults (ages 18-30) to gap year, study abroad, post-college, and volunteer programs in Israel. Together, we place student interns as campus representatives at colleges in the US and Canada to connect their peers to Israel. Last week, nearly 400 students, interns, volunteers and gap year participants from around the world gathered in Jerusalem for the third annual Masa Israel Leadership Summit.
Below, guest blogger Kari Hochwald shares how her Hillel experience led to her role as a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow.
How does the disconnected, apathetic student become involved Jewishly when they come from a background of not having many Jewish friends or enjoying their synagogue experience back home?
For me, it was through a lot of luck and a spark of interest. During my junior year at the University of Florida, I worked part-time advertising for Schwinn Bicycle Company. During my first month of work, I ended up at the same spot on campus as Hillel’s shaliach (emissary) as he recruited for Taglit-Birthright Israel. After weeks of sitting near each other, he learned I was Jewish and convinced me to sign up for the trip through my Hillel – though at that point I was a bit jaded after having been waitlisted for two years in a row. In May 2011, I went to Israel and, like many Birthright alumni I quickly fell in love with the country. During a whirlwind of ten days I was flooded with new information, yet ready for much more.
My last year of college was also my first year of involvement at UF Hillel. This ranged from program attendee to Birthright recruiter; from UF Israel intern to Masa Israel Journey intern to helping found the University of Florida’s Zionist Gators group. It also led to my last summer job (or first post-college job) as a Hillel Greeter/Secretary to continue my engagement work before moving to Israel.
Hillel was the immersive college experience I had been looking for; I found a new community on campus where I could quickly move up in leadership roles and form a lasting bond with the staff and students, while also trying to understand more about my Jewish identity and Israel. This was also the first time I felt passionate about an issue and wanted to fight for it, rather than just doing another extracurricular as a resume booster. Each week I looked forward to tabling on campus for multiple Hillel events and Shabbat dinner every Friday night. My circle of friends was beginning to look much more Jewish. My work with Hillel allowed me to help other students find approachable ways to form relationships with Israel, while at the same time learning for myself.
Through Hillel, I learned about Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, which caught my attention and stuck with me. As a fourth year student, I regretted never studying abroad and I was intent on continuing to foster my relationship with Israel, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Although I spent months looking for “real jobs,” this program always stayed in the back of my mind, until I finally submitted my application and had the pleasure of letting my parents know their child would soon be living away from home – thousands of miles away – for a year.
To explain what I do as a teaching fellow in Rehovot, Israel, I could simply say that my program involves teaching English at a middle school to small groups of pupils for 25 hours a week, and that I participate in Ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) and other enrichment programs in the afternoons – yet it has been so much more than that. Hearing Hebrew daily and attempting to respond, exploring the rest of the country on the weekends, discussing, discussing, and re-discussing Israel’s very complicated and controversial past/present/future, seeing these controversies with my own eyes rather than from a biased media source, celebrating Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Purim, and other holidays with an entire country, engaging in meaningful work and meeting Jews from around the world… life in Israel may be hectic at times, but it is always dynamic.
My story all leads up to last week, when I had the opportunity to participate in the third annual Masa Israel Leadership Summit. For five days, 400 Masa program participants throughout Israel came together, not only to learn from the wide array of speakers and madrichim at our disposal, but also from each other. Our workshops focused on networking, communication, building a community, as well as other skills.
One of the main challenges we focused on was Israel advocacy and engagement in America: that the old techniques aren't working, and there needs to be an Israel Engagement 2.0. For me, this topic was completely relatable. I had struggled to connect more apathetic Jewish students at my university without relying on free food and gimmicky programs.
By first identifying the goals of Israel engagement and then listing the surface-level techniques used today, we could begin to think about what needs to be done to bridge this gap in a more meaningful way. Throughout the summit, I became much more aware of how to continue my work with Israel upon moving back to America. All it takes is an idea. Our speakers and madrichim constantly pushed us to think of new programs and elaborate on them, then learn how to pitch these ideas and make connections with the community to see them through.
Our final session at the summit required creating a proposal for Masa of an Israel engagement program, with an added twist: we were not allowed to use the usual engagement tactics, which forced us to think outside of the box. My group spent half of our allotted time just trying to figure out an idea we really believed in, but when we did I felt that it was a success. This activity reminded me of why I still want to be involved in the Israel world once back in America; to be able to take a problem I dealt with firsthand in college and begin to work towards a solution, this time as part of my career.
When I move back to America this summer I have no idea what I'll be doing or even where I'll be living. What I do know is that Israel will continue to be a part of my life and my work, and that this past week has helped lay the foundation for beginning that process.
Kari Hochwald is a former University of Florida Hillel leader, and currently works as a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow in Rehovot, Israel.