December 28, 2004
By WENDY MARGOLIN
Through the Israel Fellows Program, Reut Ekshtein serves as Israel's ambassador in Champaign, putting a human face on the complex country of Israel for students, staff and community members. When she presents Israel's film series followed by discussions, she plays the role of Minister of Culture; while she speaks about Israel's population and geography at a meeting with a Baptist group, she is the Minister of Tourism; and when she presents a lecture about women in the Israeli army before a crowd of law students, she is the Minister of Defense.
|Reut Ekshtein (right) with two U. of I. students at a Yom Haatzmaut event on the quad. |
Israel is a hot issue on campus,says Ekshtein, who works at Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. People are talking about Israel but don't really know a lot. This program puts a face of Israel on campus.
In a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and birthright israel, the Israel Fellows Program places outstanding young Israelis on key North American campuses for a year of educational service as Hillel staff members. The fellows focus on Israel programming on campus, working with birthright alumni, and recruiting for Israel programs. The Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JCRC) and The Hillels of Illinoissubsidizes the program and works closely with Ekshtein.
Having an Israeli to coordinate Israel programs, both cultural and political, really makes a difference on campus, says Sarah Friedman, program director for the Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses. Just having an Israeli present on campus for students to talk about what real life is like in Israel has had positive effects.
There's a human face for Israel there, and it's not just some distant place. Ekshtein also supervises two U. of I. interns for the Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses. The Israel Fellows Program began in 2002 with one fellow at the University of Maryland. The program's success there increased the program to six Israelis on campuses in 2003, including Ekshtein. This year, the program deployed 20 Israelis to North American campuses. Elan Wagner, Jewish Agency shaliach to Hillel International and supervisor to the Israel Fellows, says, The original impulse for the program came when the intifada broke out and there was a sharp decline in travel to Israel, coupled with a feeling that college students had little sense of the conflict from Israel's perspective. The idea was that direct contact with Israeli peers would be something that so many students never had even before the conflict.
Joel Schwitzer, director of Hillel at U of I, says that the impact of the Israel Fellows program on campus has been tremendous. Before Reut, these programs would have had to be split up between our staff and would have fallen through the cracks. She has helped us keep Israel on the front burner at Hillelwhere it should be.
Ekshtein's cultural programs such as an Israeli film club, belly dancing classes and a Dead Sea spa attract students who otherwise might not attend Hillel or Israel events. She also works with students to advocate for Israel through tabling on campus and monitoring the campus newspaper Daily Illini. Ekshtein also works with IlliniPAC, the Illinois-Israel Public Action Committee.
Wagner says, Israel Fellows have given students tools and confidence to meet advocacy challenges in more effective ways.
Ekshtein presents lectures for non-Jews on campus and in the community, incorporating her own background and family history to offer her listeners a human perspective on Israel. To prepare for a lecture on the foundation of Israel, Ekshtein interviewed her grandfather, who was one of the founders of the state. I'm an Israeli, and I am not objective about anything pertaining to Israel. When I represent my country I am emotionally involved, she says.
Throughout all of her work, Ekshtein seeks out prospective candidates for Israel programs, especially birthright israel. Although University of Illinois has sent many students on birthright israel since the program began, Schwitzer attributes the high participation from Champaign to Ekshtein's encouraging students who have not been to Israel to go. According to Wagner, the number of participants on birthright has increased on all the campuses with Israel Fellows.
Much of Ekshtein's influence on campus is through informal encounters at social gatherings. People know Israel from the media. They think it's a terrorist state and a war zone, and they don't know reality that Israel won the basketball tournament for all of Europe, that we got two gold medals in Athens, that Naot are made in Israel, that the cell phone was invented there. I tell them these things.
Schwitzer says, [Ekshtein] was a trailblazer in testing to see if this is a viable program. She proved that not only is it viable, but it's vital.
The Hillels of Illinois, part of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life, is a partner in serving our community, supported by JUF/JF, and is devoted to providing year-round cultural, social, religious, educational, athletic and counseling activities designed to meet the evolving needs of Jewish young adults. For more information about the Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses, call (312) 357-4849 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. JUF/JF annually allocates funds to support birthright israel as part of a partnership of the federations, the Israeli government and philanthropists. JUF/JF also developed a community trip including students from different Hillels and those who are not in college but are recruited through Shorashim, a nonprofit organization devoted to building bridges between Israeli and North American Jews. JUF/JF's Chicago birthright israel Alumni, along with Hillels and Shorashim, provides educational, cultural and volunteer follow-up to the trips. For more information call (312) 444-2097.
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