As a reaction to growing anti-Israel sentiment on many Chicago-area campuses, Jewish students and faculty are re-asserting their support for Israel. With the support of Hillel and Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) professionals, students are initiating Israel-related programming that is not just responsive, but proactive. Initiatives on and off campus are also providing students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, with opportunities to learn more about Israel.
Abby Damsky, a DePaul University junior who recently took on the position of JCRC/Hillel Israel Intern for that campus, helped plan an Israeli Independence Day celebration for her school, including a performance by the Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop group Strong Black Coffee. Damsky used her network of other Israel interns on Illinois campuses to bring students from other schools to DePaul, where tensions have at times been high following Israel’s most recent war. Other universities also offered Yom Ha’Atzmaut related programming, including a weeklong celebration at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a festival showcasing the “Different Faces of Israel” at University of Illinois-Chicago.
Damsky, who went on a JUF Birthright Israel trip last winter and was there when Israel’s operation in Gaza started, was excited to step into her new role as Israel intern.
“It was what I wanted in a leadership position,” she said. “It encompasses so much: to enlighten the student body about all the beautiful facets of Israel, and hopefully to debunk some terrible stereotypes about Israel, the conflict and Jews in general.”
DePaul Hillel, a division of Hillels Around Chicago, has presented a host of educational Israel-related events in the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hamas. In one prominent example, in February, former Israeli deputy prime minister Natan Sharansky spoke to a group of nearly 300 students and community members on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Sharansky discussed Israeli democracy and answered questions—some heated—from the crowd.
Arts in the Loop, another program of Hillels Around Chicago, has provided students with opportunities to learn about Israeli culture and arts. A March photo exhibition by Israeli photographer Yigal Gawzi at Illinois Institute of Technology, sponsored by Hillels Around Chicago and other groups, shared Gawzi’s perspective on Tel Aviv’s historic Bauhaus architecture, in celebration of the 100 years since that city’s founding in 1909.
At Loyola University Hillel the semester was framed by two programs that demonstrated that campus’s successful intergroup relationships. Early in the semester, Hillel brought together student groups of various faiths and backgrounds for “Sharing Prayers for Mideast Peace.” As the semester came to an end, women students from Hillel and the Muslim Students Association co-sponsored a program honoring March as women’s history month.
“What’s unique about Loyola is that even in this challenging time, we’ve maintained warm relationships with other groups on campus, including Muslim student groups,” said Patti Ray, Loyola Hillel director.
Hillel at Loyola closed the semester with a screening and discussion of the movie adaptation of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, as well as a workshop on Israeli cooking at a kosher apartment in the Loyola area led by former Hillels Around Chicago program director Galit Greenfield, now a culinary student. Jewish and non-Jewish students created and enjoyed an Israeli-style meal and discussed the culinary side of Israeli culture.
This semester, the JCRC/Hillel Israel Initiative, a joint program between JCRC and the Hillels of Illinois that aims to motivate Israel activism on campuses, also offered IsraLimmud, an in-depth advocacy and support program, on four campuses, including the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, and DePaul, in addition to a graduate student group.
“I think it’s so important to be knowledgeable,” said Damsky, the Israel intern, who participated in IsraLimmud this spring. “It’s especially important because we’re partly on the defense at DePaul. It’s also a great opportunity to just talk about how we feel as well.”
Damsky also participated in a fly-in to Washington, D.C., through the JCRC/Hillel Initiative, with 24 other students to meet with congressional leaders, an experience she described as “really empowering.” While in D.C., Damsky and other students met directly with leaders, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., to lobby for support of Israel and also ask for their support of specific hate crime legislation.
“You really do have an influence and an impact. To be 21 and in college and do that—it’s pretty amazing,” Damsky said.
Still, Damsky recognizes that the situation at DePaul has been difficult for Jewish students expressing their support for Israel.
“In the past I’ve always felt safe at DePaul and so happy that DePaul encourages diversity. I’ve been really disheartened the past few months with anti-Semitic activities and the lack of a proactive response from the university,” Damsky said.
But, as Damsky looks forward to her next year on campus, she is hopeful and excited to get started on her work.
“As time goes on I think the tensions will go away,” she said. “I think we can build relationships on campus again. I think we can get there. It’s going to take a long time, but we’ll get there.”
Jordan Roth is staff associate for The Hillels of Illinois.