By Laura Cusack
Program Director, JUF’s Israel Education Center
It was about 6 years ago that I met Emily. At the time I was a student
at North Park University in Chicago and Emily was the director of a non-Jewish
outreach program run by JUF’s Israel
Education Center (IEC). I was in a different place in life than most people
my age. I returned to school to obtain my
Bachelors in my late 20s, and providence placed me on a campus that would lead
me down a totally new path in life. Emily had formed partnerships at North Park
which eventually led to our connection. I remember meeting her for coffee about
an opportunity to join a delegation to D.C. to advocate for continued U.S.
support of Israel. I could not believe someone was offering this kind of
opportunity to me.
Although not Jewish, I had grown up in a home that supported Israel and
at North Park was fortunate to have Political Science faculty who also gave
students the opportunity to learn, grow, grapple with and develop a deeper
understanding of the modern State of Israel.
The connection with the Chicago Jewish community was totally new and
exciting and the opportunity to take action with this community was
unprecedented in my life. But it didn’t end there. Emily then continued to
offer more opportunities- soon I was interning with the IEC on campus and
connecting my university community to Israel. But there was so much more to
I’ll never forget the day Emily called me and asked if I wanted to go
to Israel. I actually cried on the phone, I just couldn’t believe it! Why me?!
At that point I had graduated and was looking for an open door. This was it.
From the minute I took that journey to Israel my life would never be
the same. Not only did the trip transform me, but soon afterward I would be
welcomed into this community to work for the Israel Education Center. That was
August of 2010.
Although I had traveled to Israel and was involved with the IEC on
campus, entering into the Jewish communal world as professional staff was a
totally new experience. Each day was an adventure, an opportunity to learn and
grow, and a special privilege that changed my life as the years progressed. Five
years have passed since that point- and so much has happened, in my life, in
the community- in the world.
Over the past 5 years my life was expanded through the experiences I
had with outstanding Federation staff, wonderful Hillel colleagues, Israel
Fellows, speakers, journalists, policy makers from Israel and throughout the
U.S., faculty on campuses across Illinois, students, interns, other partner organizations
and so many more. The resources that this Federation poured into my life have
been tremendous. My experiences included running one of the IEC’s pilot
programs, overseeing lecture tours, writing educational resources, staffing a non-Jewish
student leadership trip to Israel and policy conferences to D.C., overseeing IEC’s
internship programs, and increasingly combatting the delegitimization of Israel
There have been so many wonderful experiences connecting the next
generation to Israel but also some very challenging and difficult ones. I’ve
watched how quickly the campus climate towards Israel has shifted, how the
world has shifted. I’ve been there with the community as Jewish students have
experienced hate, isolation, harassment, intimidation and anti-Semitism. I’ve
been on campus when anti-Israel divestment resolutions and referendums pass and
have seen the impact they have on Jewish students, the campus community and
beyond. I’ve been continually exposed to those whose sole mission is to fight a
battle intended to tear down and destroy a people and a special place.
Although this is a reemerging battle that has been waged against Jews
for millennia and although we are entering a challenging time, one thing I have
learned from this community is resilience- and ALWAYS upholding the creation,
building up and celebration of life. I am totally confident that what is meant
for harm will turn out for good. This is the legacy of the Jewish people for thousands
of years. That for every challenge, hardship, persecution and attack – there
remains a steadfast story of triumph. An enduring spirit that always thrives,
grows, gives more life and shares it with the entire world.
This is the community I have been privileged to be a part of. This
sharing of life is what I’ve been given. I have told many close colleagues that
my time here has brought me levels above and beyond what I ever expected, and what
an amazing experience and blessing this has been. The love and care shown to me
have changed me- I’ll never be the same.
At the end of this month I move on to another part of the country for new experiences and adventures. But I leave a place I love and people that mean so much to me. Thank you Emily for your friendship, generosity and open heart. I’m moving on with a commitment wherever life takes me to support Israel- and with total gratitude for everything this community has done in my life. Thank you.