By Kelsey Kaplan and Michelle Chernack
We started out in Hillel as lost and confused freshmen, unsure of what our college lives were going to consist of and how our Jewish identities would fit in. Flash forward four years, and we now find ourselves at our last Jews and Brews and Bagel Breaks, still questioning parts of our Jewish identities, but more confident discussing and exploring that aspect of our lives. Now, as graduating seniors, we can confidently say that Hillel has prepared us in more ways than one when it comes to Jewish identity and relationship to
Israel. During the school year, we decided to finish off our Hillel careers with an activity that would connect students on our campuses. While discussing different ideas of programs that would interest our peers on campus with PDX Hillel Managing Director and Israel Fellow Shiran Halfon, we realized we had a passion to explore the complexities of Israel with a wider range of people. Together we decided to create a program that would teach us more about Israel and what it means to each of us and our campuses.
We took on the challenge ready to change up the usual grind and reach beyond the bubble we’ve called home. We reached 2,800 miles across the country to the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference.
As active Hillel members within the community, we were eager to engage with 4,000-plus students with the same fervor as we have in the Pacific Northwest. With the support of an extremely generous donor, and Shiran’s help, we put together a fellowship during the spring semester/quarter to educate, inspire and create.
The Engage With Israel Fellowship allowed PDX Hillel college students interested in Israel education, awareness, advocacy and engagement to participate in a series of workshops, discussions and guest speakers to continue learning about the complexities of Israeli society. Additionally, the fellowship prepared us for discussions about Israel in our communities and campuses. Through this unique opportunity and experience, every fellow walked away with the knowledge, skills and confidence that allow us to explore our individual relationship and connection with/to Israel.
With the help and support of Hillel and community donors, our group included nine students, six from Portland State University and three from Lewis & Clark. During the conference in Washington, D.C., we heard from incredible speakers discussing a variety of topics from American politics to the Syrian war to the refugee crisis. Along with all attendees, we heard from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. We also heard from Vice President Joseph Biden, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via satellite.
Often our “breaks” between sessions turned into full-on discussions among all the fellows, sharing what we had just learned – and we did not always agree with one another. However, this fellowship strengthened our small delegation like no other experience could have. From the discussions prior to the trip to the conference itself, we connected with each other, the community and Israel supporters around the country to continue asking questions, learning, loving and supporting Israel. We hope that PDX Hillel students in the coming years may continue this newly established tradition to ignite each other and our campuses in a brand new way. Inspired by the words spoken at our Hillel seder a few weeks ago, we close with “Next year at AIPAC.”
Kelsey Kaplan is a senior at Portland State University and JSU president. Michelle Chernack is a senior at Lewis & Clark College. Both are participants in the Engage With Israel Fellowship.