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Retreat trains student activists for Israel
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Retreat trains student activists for Israel

Program uses film and discussions to counter bias on campus

College students at the Talk Israel Retreat
College students at the Talk Israel Retreat

Some 50 high school and college students attended an Israel advocacy retreat at the Hanover Marriott in Whippany, learning the skills to counter anti-Israel activism on campus and promote the country to their peers.

The Talk Israel Retreat for Jewish College Students, Feb. 20-22, included students from Rutgers, Montclair State University, Drew University, Fairleigh Dickinson University-Madison, and Kean University and five students from Israel. The programming focused on Israeli elections with the aim of teaching how Israel operates as a democratic state.

The retreat was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in coordination with federation’s Israel Program Center and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life. It was funded by a contribution of the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future.

The programs were run by Israel experts and Hasbara fellows.

Among the topics covered were Israel’s system of government, its minority voices, and influences from the outside — especially as they relate to security. 

The retreat included a screening of Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front, a documentary about Israeli soldiers, followed by a discussion with IDF Lt. Eden Adler. Adler, who was featured in the movie, represented the film’s distributor, Jerusalem U, and joined the students for the entire retreat. 

“One of the accusations is that Israel is a militaristic state,” said CRC chair Gordon Haas. “This movie helps to humanize the IDF soldiers and to remind us that the Israeli soldiers are our sons and daughters.” 

On Sunday night, Feb 22, a community viewing of Beneath the Helmet was held at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston. More than 310 people attended — including families with teens and members of a Kushner Israel club that meets every Friday to focus on advocacy. Adler met with students over a pizza dinner before the screening. The program was cosponsored with the Partnership, the federation’s Jewish identity-building organization.

Adler, who took a leave from the army so he could come to speak in the United States, also spoke at Kushner after the movie. “I have one thing to ask you,” said Adler. “Protect me while I’m here in the U.S. and I will protect you in Israel. We are all part of the same army. I am proud to be Jewish, and we are a Jewish army defending each other.”

With pro-Palestinian and pro-BDS (boycott, sanctions, and divestment actions aimed at Israel) activism increasing on college campuses, the CRC and its partners have made campus Israel advocacy a priority. Pro-Palestinian groups have declared Feb. 26-March 12 an annual “Israel Apartheid Week,” which Jewish groups say is often a cover for “hate” directed at Israel and its supporters. 

Last month, eight high school seniors from Greater MetroWest were among 45 students in Israel taking part in “Write On For Israel,” a two-year Israel engagement and leadership training program sponsored locally by the CRC.

The seniors posted a blog about their experience on the federation’s home page (jfedgmw.org). 

“Our aim is to provide students a balanced, productive, and well-thought-out advocacy experience to be well equipped to address situations on college campuses,” said Haas. “Studies have shown that 70 percent of Americans do not really know much about Israel. If we stay focused on educating our young adults, through our personal stories and connections, we can best influence their understanding and ability to speak about Israel. In the CRC and federation, our aim is to provide students with personal experiences that will inspire them to engage and speak up for Israel.”

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