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July 3, 2017 1:02 am

New Leader of Campus Program Seeks to Highlight Israel’s Diversity

avatar by Adam Abrams / JNS.org

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Muhlenberg College students leaving for a Birthright Israel trip.
Photo: Facebook via Hillel: Taglit-Birthright Israel.

JNS.org – The Israel Fellows program is a pro-Israel initiative that is active on more than 120 North American college campuses, and its new leader is seeking to raise awareness about the Jewish state’s diversity.

“Israel is often stereotyped, but every Israeli is unique and together, they are a diverse people,” said Michelle Rojas-Tal, the newly appointed director of the Israel Fellows program; the project is a joint initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel International.

“As someone who grew up in an interfaith family in inner-city New York, I genuinely relate to Israelis and the Israeli story. As a Jew, I am inspired to help other young people appreciate and build the connections they have to Israel.”

The Israel Fellows program, which aims to help students make positive connections to Israel, currently deploys a network of 75 Israeli young professionals who work at campus Hillel branches, support pro-Israel student groups, educate students about the Jewish state, and strive to protect campuses from anti-Israel activity and associated antisemitism. The fellows — who come from Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Indian, European and central Asian backgrounds — also work to build pro-Israel coalitions with diverse allies.

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Born to a Jewish mother and a Hispanic father, Rojas-Tal is an internationally acclaimed presenter and speaker; she previously spent the last decade as the diaspora education director for the pro-Israel group, StandWithUs International. In 2013, she was chosen as one of the Jerusalem Post’s six “women to watch” in global Jewish leadership circles. Yahal Porat will serve alongside Rojas-Tal as the Israel Fellows program’s new assistant director.

In her position with StandWithUs, Rojas-Tal advocated for Israel in South Africa, Australia, North America and Europe, where she said that she “taught and learned from so many people.”

“The Israeli people are my motivation,” Rojas-Tal told JNS.org. “I wasn’t taught to love Israel as a child. I fell in love with Israel as a young adult at Hillel, when I learned about Israel as a real and complex place.”

Rojas-Tal said that her first priority is “to empower the 75 Israel Fellows,” who cultivate relationships with more than 17,000 students and recruit thousands of young Jews to participate in Birthright Israel trips, as well as other immersive programs involving travel to Israel. The fellows serve for up to three years .

Israel Fellows also organize campus events in which students from different cultures can discover shared values with the Jewish state, fostering a climate of mutual respect. For instance, Shachar Levi, an Israel Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, told JNS.org that in 2016, he brought together Indian students celebrating Diwali and Jewish students celebrating Hanukkah. Levi also organized a “Pride Shabbat” to bring together Jewish students and the LGBT community; an immigration-themed Passover held jointly with a Hispanic student group; and a block party in which 5,000 to 7,000 students learned about the IDF as well as Israeli culture, politics, minority rights, food and music.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, has called the Israel Fellows program “one of our flagship initiatives.”

“It was created with the goal of encouraging Jewish students to create meaningful and lasting ties with Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity,” he said. “I am excited to welcome this incoming leadership and look forward to seeing them grow the program even further.”

“Israel education and engagement are part of Hillel’s core mission and vision, and Israel Fellows bring the country’s people and society to life every day for Jewish students,” said Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Hillel International.

Each Israel Fellow “has a unique Israeli story to tell,” said Rojas-Tal, who proceeded to quote the Jewish sage Hillel’s “If not now, when?”

“The Israel Fellows are Israel’s now,” she said. “I want to help them share their stories to help American Jews build lasting connections to Israel.”

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