Understanding what it means to be an Israel activist

by Leah Karchmer

Leah Karchmer, Lewis Summer Intern with JUF's Israel Education Center

My name is Leah Karchmer and I am currently a sophomore at DePaul University. This summer I was a Lewis Summer Intern working with JUF's Israel Education Center (IEC). My experiences throughout my first year at DePaul, as both a Jewish student and an Israel activist, are what led me to this position and what have granted me the perspective that I hope to contribute to the IEC.

Coming from a strong Jewish community, and having attended Jewish day school and Chicagoland Jewish High School, my decision to go to college at the country's largest Catholic university was a major transition, to say the least. My decision to go to DePaul University stemmed from a number of different considerations: the ideallocation, the generous scholarships, and admittedly, my apprehension to stray too far from home, to name a few. However, as the end of high school drew near and the prospect of college became a more visible reality, I began to consider more seriously what this transition would mean for my Jewish identity.

In the final days of my Modern Jewish Thought class, one of the courses in the senior curriculum, we spoke about the challenges that campus life might pose with regard to our Jewish traditions. As we spoke about whether we would continue to daven each morning and if we would feel comfortable hanging a mezuzah on the doorposts of our dormitories I began to deeply consider, for the first time, what it would mean to no longer be surrounded by other Jewish students.

Meanwhile, our senior curriculum also included a crash course in Israel Advocacy designed to prepare us for what we might encounter on campus. Admittedly, this was the first time I had ever heard the term "Israel Advocacy," and so needless to say it had not been a determining factor in my college decision process. However, as part of the presentation given by IEC's Director, Emily Briskman, we were shown a slideshow of various anti-Israel campaigns that had been held at universities across the country; a number of them took place at DePaul. Immediately, my mind began to race--not having a strong Jewish community on campus was one thing, but attending a university where student groups actively campaigned against something I was so personally connected with was another. Was I prepared to fight that battle? And, more importantly, did I want to? The prospect of college was overwhelming enough without the added stress of taking on this additional challenge.

Before arriving to campus, I reached out to the President of DePaul's Hillel, and spoke to other Jewish leaders on campus about what Jewish life was like at the university. When the issue of Israel came up, they explained to me that while the general sentiment on campus was heavily anti-Israel, there were many resources and people ready to support any Jewish student who was made to feel uncomfortable. This only furthered my anxiety, and confirmed my fears of what lay ahead. Despite my ever-growing apprehensions, however, I did decide to go to DePaul and am incredibly glad that I did.

My first few months at DePaul passed without incident, and I came to think that perhaps all of the rumors had been largely exaggerated. At the end of the first quarter however, I encountered an anti-Israel protest. During a pro-Israel event organized by a friend of mine from Hillel, a large group of students from the student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) interrupted the program to perform a new form of protest borrowed from the Occupy movement called a "Fact-Check", after which the group proceeded to walk out. As I stood and watched this, listening to the "facts" chanted by the group be distorted and manipulated in an effort to delegitimize the state of Israel, I felt incredibly helpless and frustrated. And as I looked at the faces of my fellow Jewish and pro-Israel students, I could see that they felt the same.

My initial response was to react emotionally; I felt deeply and personally offended by their message. However, what I have since learned is that the far more effective technique to combat delegitimization efforts is through education and positive programming. Over the course of this past year serving as the co-founder and president of DePaul's Israel Advocates, I, along with the support of many fellow Israel activists, including IEC's Israel Intern, was able to plan and execute many programs aimed at highlighting various aspects of Israeli culture. Through this constant stream of positive programming and education, I am proud to say that our group, with support from IEC and other pro-Israel organizations, was able to make tremendous strides in changing the image of Israel on campus.

DePaul students organize a memorial service for Yom Ha'Zikaron

After having spent a year at the university, I have been challenged in ways I never imagined, which although difficult at times, has undoubtedly strengthened my Jewish identity and my understanding of what it means to be an Israel activist.

As a day school student, I had grown up in an environment strongly supportive of Israel which enabled me to develop a strong personal connection to the state, both religious and cultural. This foundation remains an integral part of my identity, and largely defines my personal connection to the land of Israel. My time at DePaul meanwhile, has expanded my appreciation for the state, as I have learned that connections to her need not and should not be restricted to the Jewish community.

The rich and flourishing culture of Israel, to which I feel so personally connected, is one that can be communicated and shared with any audience, simply by speaking in terms that are meaningful and relevant to them. This has been the most essential lesson I have learned from my experiences at DePaul. At a Catholic university where the Jewish community is small, the need to go beyond the Jewish community in an effort to educate people about the state of Israel is crucial. Building relationships with other student groups and demonstrating to them a connection to the state through the framework of what is meaningful to them has been the key to our success. From both the struggles and successes of this past year, I have strengthened my connection to Israel and my skills as an advocate for her, and ultimately, proven that with the proper tools and support, changing the image and discourse regarding Israel is possible on any campus.

From my work with the IEC this summer, I continue to develop and strengthen my skills as an Israel advocate, which I will bring with me when I return to campus in the fall. The resources provided by the IEC for students who, like myself, are overwhelmed at the prospect of confronting anti-Israel activity on campus, are crucial. Most notable amongst these resources is The Playbook, which offers an unparalleled guide to positive, effective forms of Israel Advocacy. By equipping students with the support and tools necessary to effectively advocate for Israel, the IEC works to change the image and the discourse about Israel on campuses across Illinois. 

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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