By Rotem Raiter
In the aftermath of the tragic synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, I asked one of my colleagues in Israel about the last time she was subjected to anti-Semitism. She thought about it and responded that, actually, she never directly experienced anti-Semitism.
Our conversation moved to the anti-Semitic incidents that took place at Michigan campuses during my two years as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Michigan State University (MSU) Hillel, including a Valentine’s Day card distributed at Central Michigan University — whose campus is part of the Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan (HCAM), a division of MSU Hillel that oversees 10 campuses throughout the state — which stated “My love to you burns like 6 million Jews,” a swastika scratched on an MSU student’s car and our AEPi house getting vandalized with Hitler mustaches spray-painted on past fraternity brothers’ pictures.
My colleague was shocked to hear about these incidents — and how they continue to occur, whether it be two University of Michigan instructors recently denying recommendation letters to students because they planned to study abroad in Israel or the deadly anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh. I told her that while I worked at MSU Hillel, I lived for two years as a minority. Even now, I’m only just beginning to understand how Jews live in the diaspora. For Israelis who haven’t had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in North America, like I did, the gap in understanding is that much greater.
In the summer of 2017, I became one of the hundreds of Jewish Agency shlichim (Israeli emissaries) who return home to Israel each year after serving in diaspora Jewish communities, undergoing transformative professional and personal experiences. More than a year after my return, my own transformation continues.
During my work as an Israel Fellow, I reached out to and spoke with many students, most of whom didn’t really know about Israel. I always felt that every talk with a student (Jewish or non-Jewish) was important because I was a shaliach (emissary), and they saw me as Israel. For a lot of them, I was their only personal contact with Israel or an Israeli.
MSU Hillel has a terrific collaborative initiative with the David Project, in which they reach out to non-Jewish student leaders and their groups in order to forge friendships between Jewish students and the broader campus community. The highlight of this initiative is a 10-day trip to Israel which, in an unbiased manner, gives non-Jewish student leaders an inside look at Israel, Israeli culture and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The student leaders who attend the trip bring back important lessons for their organizations.
As an Israel Fellow and as part of the collaboration with the David Project, I also had the opportunity to work on programming that celebrated diversity. For example, we had an African American dance/Jewish hora class, in which both groups taught each other the styles from their respective cultures. It was inspiring to see how Hebrew music and Israeli culture made such a positive first impression about Israel on the African American students. It was just one example of the meaningful relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish students at MSU, with Israel at the center of that relationship. Through such programs, we showed a diverse study body that Israel is more than what people see on the news — that it does have conflict, but also so many other sides.
I still keep in touch with some of the non-Jewish student leaders I worked with at MSU. I can see that, even in the flurry of all of today’s headlines, they understand the complexity of Israel. When I visited East Lansing this past Sukkot, I met with one of the non-Jewish students who took a trip to Israel through Hillel, a student who feels destined for involvement in local or national American politics. He proactively reached out to me, and we spent a full day together. In that moment, I understood the impact I had on him. He cleared an entire day in his schedule just to spend time with me and to talk about Israel. One day, in whatever role he assumes, he’ll bring his unique narrative on Israel to the table.
Yet at the same time, since returning to Israel, I’ve realized that the awareness doesn’t necessarily go both ways. It seems to me that most of us, as Israelis, don’t know very much about the diaspora unless it pertains to major news stories like disagreements about egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall or the shooting in Pittsburgh. Nor do many Israelis understand or respect the diversity of Jewish practices and Jewish ways of life in the diaspora. When I attended the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv in October, I was encouraged to learn about how seriously the Jewish Agency is working to raise Israelis’ awareness and acceptance of Judaism’s religious streams and the Jewish community’s most important challenges both in Israel and the diaspora.
As a returning shaliach, I came to understand how everything Israelis do or decide here affects Jewish life in the diaspora and how we need to do all we can to foster increased mutual understanding between Israeli and diaspora Jews. From anti-Semitism to religious pluralism, the Jewish people have numerous challenges and opportunities before them. It’s incumbent upon us to try to understand each other, to prioritize Jewish unity and to tackle this journey together.
Rotem Raiter, the former Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Michigan State University Hillel, works for a consulting company in Israel’s Jezreel Valley.