Israel Campus Beat: Bridging the Gap - Campus Activists Empowered After Year in Israel

September 10, 2012

By Emma Goss, ICB Reporter
A gap year program in Israel may end after 12 months, but participants say the experiences that they bring back to campus endure throughout their college careers.
Ariella Axler, a sophomore at Stanford University, said that she was already very supportive of Israel prior to participating in a Young Judaea gap year program before starting Stanford. Returning from the program has “made me more excited to share my thoughts with people," she said. "I’m not necessarily an advocate, but more of a cultural representative of Israel.” 
Axler said that Israel is a “very politicized” subject at Stanford, where each year Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights (SPER) urges the University to divest from companies that support Israel.
According to Stanford junior Noah Linfield, the divestment initiatives “definitely wore out a lot of Jewish students,” but Linfield’s decision to go on a gap year to Israel mid-college gave him the fuel to sustain his strong support of Israel on campus.
While most students who participate in gap year programs go before starting college, Linfield went to Israel after his sophomore year, studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion
Linfield said that taking a break to study in Israel gave him a new perspective and “a new resolve to come back to campus and be involved in any way I can. I’m looking forward to going back [to campus] and getting involved.”
Students who study for a year at Israeli yeshivas and religious seminaries typically learn about Israel through a religious lens, yet many students also bring back to the United States an enhanced understanding of Israeli political and cultural issues.
At the University of Maryland, sophomore Naham Shapiro, who spent a year studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and is president of Shalom Zionists of University of Maryland (SHAZAM), said that although he went on a religious gap year program, his energies on campus are focused on advocating for Israel in a political, nonreligious context.
“The Jewish community at the University of Maryland is very much dominated by the Orthodox, and many of the various Jewish or Israel groups are centered in Hillel," Shapiro said. SHAZAM, he said, seeks to engage a broader cross-section of the campus community.
According to Linfield, who also went to Israel for religious studies, some yeshivas work to encourage students to advocate for Israel both on spiritual and political levels. 
“There were several classes and programs that focused on college advocacy and transferring what we’ve learned at the yeshiva back to campus, both in terms of current Israeli-Palestinian issues” in addition to Jewish issues, he said.
Often students enter their college campuses post-gap year as independent Israel advocates, without a strong support network.
Columbia University sophomore Joshua Fattal was studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion when he spearheaded Engaging Washington from Abroad (EWFA), a program designed to prepare students on gap year programs to become campus leaders in Israel advocacy through continued contact and meetings with peers from other gap year programs.
Fattal started EWFA in November, 2010, when he, along with friends and support from AIPAC, reached out to hundreds of students on gap year programs in Israel, and brought approximately 150 students to hear a presentation by AIPAC's director of leadership development, Jonathan Kessler.
Fattal said the initial meeting in Jerusalem was “a stepping-off point” for future meetings among gap-year graduates back in the US. This network helps students who advocate for Israel on their college campuses feel like they are part of a larger group of like-minded people.
Columbia sophomore Daniel Cohen who also was involved in the creation of EWFA, said that when students start college after a gap year program, they often feel more confident in advocating for Israel because, at least for a year, Israel was their home.
“You were there, you saw it on the ground, you made your conclusions. You feel much more qualified to tell yourself that you can be an activist on campus than if you’re just popping out of high school and being told Israel is awesome,” Cohen said. “You feel much more empowered.”