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Advocating for Israel on the quad

Two Connecticut campuses among those hosting Israel Fellows 

By Cindy Mindell

Algom Ben-Horin

In 2003, in the midst of the second intifada, a strategic partnership was being crafted by The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The new initiative, Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel, or Israel Campus Fellows, was designed to strengthen the standing of Israel on university campuses throughout North America.
A component of JAFI’s Young Shlichut (emissary) Program, and part of its education department, the initiative is headed by Ronen Weiss, JAFI’s emissary to Hillel at Hillel’s Schusterman International Center in
Washington, D.C.
The program was piloted with six shlichim, or emissaries, in 2003. Today, 56 young Israelis serve on 70 North American college campuses – two of which are in Connecticut. Over the next four years, Hillel and JAFI intend to increase the number of involved campuses to 100.
In describing the importance of the program, JAFI chair Natan Sharansky wrote, “The heart of the debate on college campuses in North America is increasingly not between left and right – whether or not certain policies are acceptable, certain negotiating positions legitimate, or certain concessions justified.  The debate on North American campuses is about the very legitimacy of Israel – whether the Jewish state has the very right to exist, and whether Israel is something to which Jewish young people ought to be connected.  When respected institutions of higher learning play host to radical gatherings aimed at undermining Israel’s existence and when Jewish students find themselves swimming in a sea of falsehoods and disinformation, many are left wondering whether Israel is a place with which they wish to have a relationship or perhaps it is better—and certainly easier—for them to disconnect.”
The Fellows work to engage students – both Jewish and non-Jewish – with Jewish identity and with Israel. They bring programming to campus, recruit participants for Israel experiences like Talit-Birthright Israel and MASA, and work with student leadership and organizations to proactively create a stronger Israel presence on campus.
Fellows have completed both their Israeli military service and undergraduate education, and have experience with campus life and other educational settings. The emissaries are hired for a two-year stint, with a reciprocal review at the end of the first year to ensure the best match for both sides.
Connecticut is host to two Israel Fellows – Amir Sagron at Yale Hillel and Algom Ben-Horin at UConn Hillel.
A Beer-Sheva native, Sagron grew up in Rehovot and served in the Israeli army as a manpower officer in the Israeli Defense Forces Induction Center, and later as team commander and operations officer at the IDF Officers School, training officers from many religions and levels of Jewish observance.  He is a lieutenant in the IDF reserves.
While pursuing a BA in political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Sagron facilitated workshops at Gesher, an organization that works to bridge gaps between various segments of Israeli society, and at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. He also worked as a tour guide at the Western Wall. Last year, he was an intern at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, analyzing the “Arab Spring.”
“In the army and during my studies, I was always fascinated with Judaism and Jewish peoplehood,” Sagron says. “The natural next step was a shlichut through the Jewish Agency.” After a month-long interview process, Sagron was accepted to the program and offered the position at Yale. After five months of training, the Israel Campus Fellows had an orientation at the Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, before dispersing to their respective campuses at the end of August.
“My job is to bring the ‘real’ Israel to students,” Sagron says. “The challenge is to try and bring other arenas of Israel to campus, not only the politics or what you hear in the news. If you take a random student at Yale – Jewish or non-Jewish – and ask him about Israel, if he’s not one of the 50 percent of Jewish students who are very involved in Hillel, most think that Israel is like Afghanistan, a desert with camels, and not safe.”
Sagron works closely with Yale Friends of Israel and the Israel chair of the Hillel student board to better educate the student population, both on Israel politics and on other aspects of Israeli society: agriculture, green environment, music, chemistry and physics. “The idea is to take the same students at the end of the year and ask, ‘What do you know about Israel?’” he says. “I want them to understand that it’s a very complex place – not only a desert with camels, but a place with many advantages, with smart and talented people, and that it excels in many arenas. And right next to that, I want them to be able to say that it’s a place with many conflicts. My job is to help students understand both aspects of Israel.”
But he is also equipped to handle the forays into the political. “Of course, even at Yale you have pro-Palestinian groups but the sentiment and way the students are engaging and connecting and dialoguing is quite different from other campuses,” Sagron says. “Even if you have some pro-Palestinian organization or student organization trying to do something like Apartheid Week, it’s not at the same volume as other campuses. I don’t want to jinx the tone at Yale, but while it’s a very politically charged place, the political environment is more liberal; I think students here know that they will have to cooperate in the future in all kinds of arenas – business, politics, etc. – so maybe they are trying to be more careful and not ruin the connection between them, not destroy the option to dialog and cooperate in the future.”
Sagron works with any student who wants to connect with Israel. In addition to organizing a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel in March, he is helping a Zimbabwean student create cooperative Israel-Africa programming on campus.
“For Jewish students, we have many events during the year,” he says. “My interest is to bring Israel to campus – it doesn’t matter if you are a Jewish student or not – and the tool will be to cooperate with everyone and try to bring Israel everywhere.”
Algom Ben-Horin, 26, was born and raised in Netanya until age 12, when he moved with his family to Binyamina, near Haifa. During high school, Ben-Horin hosted the Turkish Young Maccabiah sports team and participated in an international youth camp in Germany and Greece for two summers, culminating in a trip to the Olympics in Athens.
During his Israeli military service, Ben-Horin served as a squad commander in the Magal unit, which qualifies 70 percent of new recruits for basic training. He was promoted to platoon sergeant and finished his service as a company sergeant major. “This position was very intensive and meaningful to me and I feel like it developed me as a person and contributed to me, just like I contributed to the country and to the Israeli Defense Forces,” he says.
Immediately upon being discharged, Ben-Horin knew that he wanted to study political science and Middle Eastern studies, and entered Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he endured the ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza for three years. He learned about the Israel Campus Fellow program at a career fair.
“Since 2000, I have been frustrated by the way the media portrays Israel and I wanted to do something about it,” he says. “But before I start anything with non-Jews, I thought it would be more important to keep a direct connection between Israel and young American-Jewish students on campus. I think the most important thing for the Jewish people is to believe in ourselves and stand strong together. I also wanted to experience living on my own in a foreign country.”
While Ben-Horin’s first priority is as a Hillel employee, he also interacts with groups and individuals outside that sphere, finding ways to collaborate with other campus entities to reach as broad an audience as possible.
“I enjoy interacting with the students and hearing about their Israel experiences, and the Hillel staff-members are awesome; they have welcomed me above and beyond any expectations I had and they make me feel like I’m a part of their families,” Ben-Horin says. “I have been surprised to hear the students’ stories about antisemitism in their public schools, and to hear reactions from some people when I tell them that Israel is a liberal democracy. But fortunately, I haven’t encountered any anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist action on campus, though I did have an intensive conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an Egyptian student. The spirit of the conversation was good, but he didn’t know much about the situation and its complexity and many of the facts he gave me were complete lies. So far I find UConn a non-political campus and people don’t seem to give much thought to the political situation in their environment, not to mention outside of it.”
Like Sagron, Ben-Horin works to bring to campus the side of Israel that people rarely hear about: “the nightlife, the amazing food, the culture, the weather, the fashion, film, and music industry, the high-tech and start-ups, and so on,” he says. “I just want people to know that Israel is as normal and cool as other countries and sometimes even better. I also want Jewish students to feel proud and connected to Israel.”

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com

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