(June 6, 2018 / JNS) On an especially warm Jerusalem spring morning last year, I found myself sitting outside the office of Natan Sharansky. The sun was unforgiving, and the cold water that filled my cup could not seem to flow fast enough. I was naturally nervous. How did I find myself here?
How did I, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Hispanic father, having grown up completely disconnected from Israel, find myself sitting outside the office of one of the greatest Zionist thinkers and leaders of our time? I began to look at the images adorning the wall—past chairs of the Jewish Agency for Israel—to serve as a distraction from my nerves.
Sitting with him, I was prepared for the questions I knew would be a part of our conversation. We would discuss Jewish pluralism, Israel on campus, the Diaspora, BDS and everything in between. What I was not prepared for were his questions about myself—about my childhood, my parents and my children. He smiled from ear to ear when I shared with him how I came to choose my youngest daughter’s name, with its meaning in Hebrew translating to “love of the land of Israel.”
For more than a decade, I have started my lectures for tens of thousands of community members and students across the globe—in Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong, South Africa, Turkey, Greece, North America and Australia—with a description of Natan Sharansky’s famous “3D Test of Anti-Semitism.” According to his formula, the demonization, double standards and delegitimization as they relate to Israel are the factors that distinguish anti-Semitism from legitimate criticisms of the Jewish state.
Israel advocates on college campuses and in other communities worldwide live, breathe and teach Sharansky’s 3D test. It is the perfect tool, visually and practically, to help the general public understand that anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism. It set the stage for my career and continues to motivate me daily as the Jewish Agency’s Central Shlicha (“emissary”) to Hillel International and director of the campus Israel Fellows program, which was Sharansky’s brainchild. As he prepares to complete his nine-year tenure as the Jewish Agency’s chairman of the executive, and after he received the Israel Prize (the state’s highest cultural honor) on Israeli Independence Day in April, I am inspired to reflect on the tremendous legacy he has left for Israel on campus.
The atmosphere on certain campuses today has caused us to focus our energy on countering events and campaigns, such as those initiated by the BDS movement, aimed at creating a divisive and immoral image of Israel. Yet what is so incredible about the work of the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows is their ability to bring the real Israel to the campus setting, and to spread an Israel-positive message that fosters unity, including between Jewish students, and between Jews and other campus minorities.
Engaging students with Israel is not a simple one-off task. It is an ongoing conversation that this incredible group of dynamic young Israeli educators brings to thousands of students every day.
This is the mission of the Israel Fellows. They are the campus manifestation of the Jewish Agency’s corps of more than 2,000 Israeli emissaries who cultivate Jewish identity and strengthen connections to Israel in 150 countries.
During the 2016-17 academic year, 77 Israel Fellows served 150 campuses around the world. They had one-on-one interactions with 17,000 Jewish students and attracted more than 37,000 students to Israel-education events. They recruited 4,456 students to Birthright Israel trips—an astounding five-fold increase in just five years. They created follow-up programming for 7,653 alumni of immersive Israel programs. All in a year’s work.
The Israel Fellows are changing the culture of apathy towards Israel to one of dialogue about the Jewish state. Believe it or not, I was once largely unaware about Israel. Yes, me, the professional Israel advocate!
I grew up with minimal connection to the Jewish world and Israel. My last name was “Rojas,” after all. But after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I felt a greater need to understand Israel and forge my own personal connection to the country. I immersed myself in all things Israel as an undergraduate student at Pace University in lower Manhattan. I met my husband on a Birthright trip. Now, I devote my life and career to Israel and the Jewish people.
So many college students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are like the childhood version of me—lacking any knowledge of or connection to Israel. I am privileged to oversee the program that is best-positioned to change that. The campus Israel Fellows are authentic, IDF veteran-Israelis. They share their stories about growing up in Israel and serving their country. They offer a genuine, unmitigated perspective on life in the Jewish State. Their constant presence builds students’ trust and their willingness to engage with Israel.
None of this would have been possible without Natan Sharansky’s creativity and determination. And he has done it with complete humility. By changing the game for Israel on campus, both through the 3D test and the Israel Fellows program, he has given us an indescribable gift. The countless new connections to Israel that have been forged on campuses are an enduring part of his legacy.
Michelle Rojas-Tal is the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Central Shlicha to Hillel International and director of the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program.