Fifty-seven students representing nine colleges attended the first Talk Israel Weekend Retreat for Jewish college students in New Jersey Feb. 17-19 at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange.
Facilitated by the David Project, the weekend was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ in partnership with the Israel Program Center of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, and Rutgers Hillel’s Office of Israel Engagement.
Additional funding for the retreat was made possible by the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future and the Consulate General of Israel in New York.
This was the first time that students from area colleges were brought together for an Israel advocacy summit.
Among the 89 people at the Shabbat evening dinner were community leaders and professors from the colleges. Guest speakers included Gil Lainer, Israeli consul for public affairs, and Rabbi Elliot Mathias, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships.
On Saturday, the students participated in discussion sessions on the history of Zionism, what it means to be pro-Israel today, and the United States-Israel relationship. They also discussed the anti-Israel voices heard on campus and grappled with tough issues like the appropriateness of a state defining itself as both Jewish and democratic and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
Representatives of the David Project taught the organization’s I-Engage, a comprehensive method for engaging diverse sectors of the campus community with Israel.
Following Havdala on Saturday evening, IPC youth shliha Daphna Yizrael, offered a presentation on life in Israel for young people. In the evening a “Tel Aviv dance party” was held in the hotel.
The retreat’s Sunday morning activities were dedicated to advocacy. Shani Rozanes, media relations coordinator of the Consulate General of Israel in New York, talked about positive “branding” of Israel. The various college groups met separately to plan activities and programs in response to anti-Israel activities on their campuses. These action plans were then presented to the entire group.
The students created a Facebook group through which they continue to exchange ideas on engaging students in pro-Israel efforts on campus.
The retreat is the latest effort on the CRC agenda addressing concerns about anti-Israel activities on college campuses over the last several years. In 2008, the CRC created a Jewish Faculty Network, recruiting more than 80 professors. The group meets twice a year for lunch and a speaker; its goals include monitoring anti-Israel or anti-Semitic actions on campus and creating a support network to respond to issues that arise. In 2011, the CRC, with support from the JFN, decided to organize the Israel advocacy training and support to students on campuses.
David Dranikoff, a CRC leader who oversaw the event, said “a seed has been planted, one with vast potential to help protect our kids on college campuses.”
According to Matthew Ackerman, program specialist at the David Project who facilitated the retreat, “The participants were enthusiastic about the cause and committed to learn. They led probably the most innovative and passionate Zionist Congress I have yet seen, debated the difficult issues with respect and concern, and closed the weekend with great ideas to take back to their various campuses on how to better talk to other people about Israel.”
The colleges represented at the Talk Israel Weekend Retreat were Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Montclair State University, County College of Morris in Randolph, Kean University in Union, Drew University in Madison, New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, Union County College in Cranford, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, and Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.