Rutgers Hillel celebrates successes in combating anti-Israelism on campus

It was a tough year for friends of Israel on the Rutgers campus.

But last Tuesday night, at the Rutgers Hillel Gala held in Livingston, student activists got a warm reminder that they don’t stand alone as community leaders from all corners of the state came out to support the 68-year-old campus organization.

“The Rutgers Hillel Gala was an overwhelming success by every yardstick,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel. “We surpassed both attendance and fundraising goals by comfortable margins and, perhaps most important, the evening was a social success thanks to the Hillel students who provided programming and master of ceremonies duties. The gala was a perfect end to a highly successful Hillel school year and provided a running boost to the $18 million capital campaign to construct a new Hillel on the Rutgers campus.”

Some 275 people attended.

Local students spotlighted include Sam Weiner of Paramus, who was one of the masters of ceremonies for the evening, and two of the undergraduates who received “Student Rising Star” awards: Mariya Badu of Fair Lawn and Raffi Mark of Wayne. Michal Greenbaum, originally of Teaneck, who graduated in 2007, received Hillel’s first Young Alumni Award.

Highlighting the connection between the campus community and the established Jewish community was the leadership award given to Leonard and Ruth Cole of Ridgewood. Ruth Cole is president of the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations, which is funding Hillel’s battles on behalf of Israel on campus. (See related story.) Leonard Cole is chair of the Birthright-Israel Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America and a faculty member at Rutgers, where he is an expert in bioterrorism and terror medicine on the faculty of the Division of Global Affairs.

Mark, along with Liran Kapoano of Highland Park, presented a program entitled Fighting the Delegitimization of Israel on Campus.

“Since November of last year we have been subjected to numerous anti-Israel events and a significant increase in campus tensions,” said Mark. “Rarely has a day gone by when we have not had demonstrations, op-eds, or events that seek to falsely cast Israel as an aggressive, apartheid state or even draw comparisons between the Jewish state’s defensive actions and Nazi Germany’s Final Solution.”

“Rutgers University has found itself on the front lines of international anti-Israel efforts, as well as some visiting programs that can only be described as anti-Jewish,” said Getraer. “I was very proud of the Hillel student leadership and how they rose to the occasion to delegitimize the delegitimizers.”

One such event, co-sponsored by pro-Palestinian group BAKA (Belief, Awareness, Knowledge, Activism) and IJAN (the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network), was entitled Never Again for Anyone. The premise of the event was that the treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis was equivalent to the treatment of Jews and other political prisoners of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was advertised as “free and open to the public,” and so as a response Hillel organized a silent protest. Several students planned to sit in the front rows of the event wearing yellow shirts that said “Don’t Politicize the Holocaust” and, during one of the pro-Palestinian speeches, stand for a moment of silence before exiting. The event caught the attention of Jewish leaders from surrounding communities, and almost 400 people showed up to protest. Seeing that they were outnumbered almost three to one, the cost of admission, which previously was a suggested donation, suddenly became mandatory. The protest was thus held outside the event’s doors.

Hillel was on the front lines crafting responses to each anti-Israel event as it came up, as well as creating new pro-Israel programs to bring the community together. During Apartheid Week, Hillel set up a booth near BAKA’s apartheid wall and handed out cake with an Israeli flag design in the icing, as well as pamphlets, Israeli candy, and snacks. The overall feeling from the group was that the pro-Israel side attracted far more passers-by than the wall.

There were also many pro-Israel events that were not reacting to anti-Israel sentiment. For instance, IsraelFest, held just a few days before RutgersFest, included a large inflatable rock wall labeled Masada for anyone who wanted to climb. Participants left with bags and sunglasses labeled IsraelFest, as well as pamphlets and other sources of information on the Jewish state.

“This year has been a stressful year with constant reminders of the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel movement on campus,” said Mark, “but Hillel has remained not only supportive but a true safe haven against negativity which will only improve with the new staff.”

In addition to its pro-Israel activities, Hillel also is a resource for many Jewish religious and cultural events and activities, such as Birthright trips, ASB (Alternative Spring Break) trips to Guatemala, Israel, and New Orleans, and programs for freshmen to get acquainted with one another and Hillel.

Badu’s description of her experience with Hillel exemplifies the role of the organization in forging Jewish identity among students.

“I was never fully sure what Judaism meant to me as I was not raised religiously,” said Badu, who was born in Russia. “I was unable to identify myself with a specific denomination. Through Birthright and my experiences within Hillel, I have been truly able to embrace my identity and come to terms with my strong cultural ties to Judaism, which have come to be an integral component of my identity. Hillel played such a pivotal role in my college career and inspired me to continue to be involved in the Jewish community now that I have graduated.”

“Working with student leaders such as these every single day is one of the best parts of my job,” said Getraer at the gala. “The generation of Jewish youth today faces challenges like we’ve never seen before. We intend to give them the inspiration to become Jewish leaders.”