Long before the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign swept through college campuses, Freehold resident and retired Montclair State University professor George Zilbergeld was concerned with students’ misconceptions and misinformation about Israel.
“I came upon this idea 37 or 38 years ago,” Zilbergeld told NJJN in a phone interview about the new Leadership Project that will bring college students to Oranim Academic College of Education in the northern Galilee from July 29-Aug. 18.
Zilbergeld said after years of looking for a collaborator who shared his ideas and could implement his concept, he found Students Supporting Israel (SSI), an international organization on 39 college campuses, which partnered with Oranim. Together with SSI, he developed the Leadership Project, a grassroots student movement that promotes a “strong and united pro-Israel front” on college campuses, according to its website.
Israeli-born Ilan Sinelnikov, who cofounded SSI in 2012 while a student at the University of Minnesota, now serves as president of the organization for the United States, Canada, and Israel. He is based in Minnesota.
“The impetus behind this is to allow students to study in an environment that is dynamic and where they will be able to develop skills making them more confident,” Sinelnikov, a native of Rechovot, told NJJN in a phone interview. “I absolutely believe those taking the course will come back different than when they left.”
Although there are no SSI chapters in New Jersey, students from any college can apply for the Leadership Project. Participating students will receive six units of academic credit for two courses: Leadership Theory and Practice; and Israel: Successes, Challenges, and Creative Solutions.
According to SSI, the Leadership Project will expose students to the “real Israel” by providing grounding in its history using interactions with a diverse group of Israelis from different ethnicities, religious denominations, and more. The goal is to equip students with tools to effectively debunk myths spread about Jews, Judaism, and Israel. The program will also focus on instilling leadership skills they’ll need in order to be effective advocates for the Jewish state on campus, and in their communities.
Besides Hebrew language lessons, participants will also learn krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system, and receive emergency medical training. Zilbergeld said he included the latter two because he believes the classes will provide a “boost” to the self-confidence of the students.
Zilbergeld said he first realized the importance of instilling a positive image of Israel in others who knew little about it while he was a professor at Arkansas College — now Lyon College — in Batesville from 1975-80. “There was one other Jewish lady in town,” he said. He later taught for 30 years at Montclair State, rising to chair the political science department.
“Outside of college campuses, Jews and Israel are very popular,” said Zilbergeld, now an adjunct professor teaching political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and at Thomas Edison State University, a state college with online courses. Today, however, “[t]here’s a trend on college campuses in the other direction.”
He said because of indifference or open hostility toward Israel by both professors and students, pro-Israel students often feel uncomfortable on campus. The Leadership Project is designed to empower them to feel “like the guardians of Israel in their community.”
“When people on campus, the BDS people, come to campus with their outrageous lies about mistreatment of Arabs, these students will say, ‘No, you are wrong,’ and they will have the details and confidence to do it.”
Zilbergeld, who does extensive outreach for Israel speaking at clubs and churches, and to various organizations, said “there’s a lot of good feeling” about Israel, especially when hearing about its social welfare programs, joint military maneuvers with the U.S., and scientific endeavors, such as the desalination of water and technological advances.
“There’s a certain negativity on college campuses against Western civilization in general and the Jewish people specifically,” he said. “It’s really astonishing that you can go to college in New Jersey and not take a single course in Western civilization,
American history, or American government. No wonder people can’t tell whether news is fake or not.”
Deadline for applications, which must be submitted to Oranim College, is June 1. The fee is $4,100, which includes airfare, tours, air-conditioned accommodations, health insurance, and more. Scholarships are available.
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