Dr. Naomi Vilko knew she wanted to do something to counteract the increasingly ugly portrayal of Israel on college campuses, in the media, and in communities across the globe. The question was, how would the Princeton psychiatrist — the daughter of Auschwitz survivors and a lifelong supporter of the Jewish state — respond?
Three years ago, she discovered her answer almost by accident.
“I was drawn to a flyer because it contained a photo of a friend of mine,” Vilko told NJJN.
It turned out that the flyer was touting a course offered by JerusalemOnlineU.com, and Vilko’s friend — Rabbi Raphael Shore — was listed as the instructor.
Founded in 2007 by Shore, JOU is an on-line portal for learning designed to strengthen a student’s knowledge of both Israel and Judaism. Courses, some of which are college accredited, employ interactive videos and audio files featuring such renowned guest lecturers as law professor Alan Dershowitz, former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold, actors Elliott Gould and Gary Sinise, and political commentator Michael Medved.
Vilko signed up for a course and was so impressed that she became a member of the JOU board of directors and was inspired, using JOU resources, to bring live courses to the Princeton area.
Her courses are sponsored by Jewish National Fund, Nefesh B’Nefesh, American Jewish Committee, Israel Commission of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Interfaith Task Force for America and Israel.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the on-line course, but I realize that a lot of people, including many in my age group, are accustomed to learning in a more interactive setting,” the 59-year-old Vilko said. “So I set up the courses almost like a book club. I show films, bring in guest speakers, and encourage interaction.
“I charge a nominal fee,” she said, “which tends to make the overall learning experience feel more valuable.”
She defined her mission as an effort “to educate people about the history of the Jewish people, the formation of the Jewish state, our connection to Israel, the peace process, shared values, and how to advocate for Israel, even in the face of anti-Israel propaganda.”
When Vilko began her educational endeavor two years ago, her idea was to present interfaith Israel advocacy courses at both Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, where she is a member, and the Princeton Theological Seminary. She eventually discontinued the program at the seminary, but her courses at Beth El are open to the entire community. She averages roughly 50 students per class, but some classes, especially those with high-profile guest speakers, have had more than 100 attendees. It’s not unusual for her to be approached by students who are interested in bringing what they’ve learned to their synagogue or organization.
Vilko is particularly excited about Step Up for Israel, JOU’s newest course, which consists of five different classes designed to connect individuals and communities to Israel through strong foundation in education and activist opportunities. Essentially, the idea behind the course is that knowledge is power.
“When Israel is mentioned, many people think only of bombings and terrorism, but there is so much more to this country that people don’t know,” Vilko said. “I’m interested in educating people about Israel’s many accomplishments and contributions to the world, enabling them, in turn, to spread the word to their communities.”
She added that anti-Israel sentiment is often most evident on college campuses.
“It is important that college students learn about Israel’s commitment to tikun olam, democracy, free speech, religious freedom, freedom of the press, and diversity,” said Vilko, president of Vilko Corporate Consulting.
“Israel is an amazing place full of creative, innovative, wonderful people. People need to hear what this tiny country in a terrible neighborhood has accomplished in technology, medicine, science, and business. Israel’s story is truly inspirational.”
Vilko cited such Israeli innovations as the development of technology that allows individuals with lower-limb disabilities to stand, walk, and even climb stairs; drip irrigation, which saves resources by regulating the delivery of water and fertilizers to crops; and Save a Child’s Heart, a humanitarian project to improve the quality of cardiac care for children from developing countries.
Vilko said that it’s important that “all American citizens who value democracy and freedom of religion to be aware” of Israel’s accomplishments. “And that why JerusalemOnlineU.com can be so beneficial.”