Tahira Perry, who identifies as a Christian, didn’t know much about Judaism or current affairs in Israel before Stetson University Hillel brought her to the Jewish National Fund’s National Conference, which ran from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C.
“As a student leader who held an unbiased perception of Israel, I have learned an immense amount about the narrative surrounding the state,” said Perry, a 19-year-old junior at Stetson University. “I hope to use my platforms to dismantle such narratives, and increase the urge to do individual research about topics surrounding Israel and questioning the perspectives.”
Perry was one of the dozens of students brought by their local Hillels to attend the JNF’s weekend conference in Washington, D.C. More than 300 Jewish and non-Jewish students from more than 100 different campuses, along with hundreds of professionals, gathered to learn about how they can facilitate conversations about Israel on campus.
The conference featured breakout sessions with Israeli journalists, members of the Israel Defense Forces, and panels with college students as well as professors.
“It inspires you to want to do more. But I think there's also a lot of comfort, knowing that there are a lot of other people out there who share your passion,” said Ethan Kane, a 20-year-old junior at Franklin and Marshall who is active in Hillel on campus.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a keynote speaker, said the main reason why young generations may not feel as tied to Israel as previous generations is because young people may not feel as connected to their Jewish identity. He said “the stronger your Jewish identity is, the more you’re going to be connected to a Jewish state.”
“You have to tell them what a world without Israel was like when we were not a sovereign nation, when we had no voice and we had no refuge,” Dermer added.
Rebecca Thau, a 21-year-old senior at Harvard University and president of Harvard Hillel, was a featured panelist in “Positively Israel: Influencing the Narrative on Campus,” which allowed students to speak about how they address Israel on their various college campuses.
“It was also really special to see the way in which each of us deals with the conversation surrounding Israel differently and the way in which each of us has our own experiences with Israel on campus,” Thau said. “And also share this common thread that is a desire to bring a pro-Israel conversation to campus.”
Thau said one of her favorite parts of the conference is engaging with other students because they are all taking time to come together and spend a weekend thinking and speaking about Israel.
“That is definitely something that this weekend provides - that feeling that not only are you not alone in you support of Israel and the story that you tell, but that there are thousands and thousands of people that are there to back you up and support you,” she said.
Deandra Denton, a 21-year-old senior at Hofstra University who also spoke on the panel, didn’t have much knowledge about Israel before participating in a Jewish National Fund program that brings non-Jewish students to Israel.
“Going back to campus I was so eager to talk about everything that I had learned and everything that I saw beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict and so much that it is highlighted in the media,” she said. “I'm just compelled to share the narrative and be globally engaged and proactive, going beyond what’s on the surface level or what’s highlighted so intensely in the media.”
Denton said in an interview following the panel that since returning from Israel she has been proactive in speaking about her Israel experiences both inside and outside the classroom. She said she will continue to speak about Israel and educate others about what she learned.
“That's how you can change the game essentially and really open people's minds and just start new conversations.”