The Center for Jewish Peoplehood interviewed Alon Friedman, CEO of Hillel Israel about the work of his organization and why Jewish Peoplehood is so central to its mission.
How did Jewish Peoplehood become so central to Hillel Israel?
Choosing to focus on Jewish Peoplehood was part of a thoughtful strategic process that we went through. We decided to focus on our strengths and uniqueness, assuming that this would lead us to a guiding direction for all our activities. And we realized we have three main strengths. Firstly we are a students’ organization. We are strong on campus; a living organ of Israeli campus life and we benefit from the resources of campuses. So we focus on Israeli students as our key population. Secondly we are global. Unlike many non-profits who would give anything to have partners overseas, we already do. We can call Hillel colleagues all over the world and partner with them. And thirdly, we are the Israeli expression of a global Jewish organization. Israel and the Jewish people have a unique relationship and Hillel Israel is the Israeli expression of that global Jewishness. We are not like “Ernst and Young Israel”, for instance, that is just another local branch of a global company. We are also not the same as Hillel Moscow or Hillel Rio, because we are the Israeli hub of a Jewish movement.
So why do you think that Jewish Peoplehood is relevant to Israeli students?
At the center of our vision is Peoplehood. The need that has to be filled with Israeli students is the lack of a feeling of belonging to something bigger than their Israeliness. It all comes down to serving them with these issues. We recognize that religion is only a part of Judaism and in Israel it does not appeal to the majority of the students. We want Israelis to feel that being Jewish is knowing that you have another half of your family out there, even if they don’t live at home. And we are the only entity who focuses on that for students on campus.
Many people are probably surprised that there is even a need for a Jewish campus organization, a Hillel, in Israel. What do you say to them?
We believe that there are two monologues going on among young Jews today, one in Israel and one abroad, and we want to turn it into one dialogue again. We want to make sure that the next generation of Jewish leaders speaks the same language, the language of Peoplehood. Hillels outside Israel want to make change in a community level, where Jews are a minority. As a majority here in Israel we wish to make a change on the Israeli Society level, for the benefit of the whole country.
And how do you do that?
We believe primarily in peer to peer encounters, in exposing Israelis to the other half of their family and by that – to a diverse and rich spectrum of “Jewish life”. By doing this it makes them look at their own Judaism, and it becomes much more than they thought. The other thing that happens as a result of the encounter is that through the interaction, we help strengthen the connections of non-Israeli Jews to Israel. Some of the Israelis we engage, already get that it is important. Especially those who have had global Jewish experiences, with Taglit, summer camps or as shlichim. We want to turn the mifgash into a really professional experience and we are positioning Hillel Israel as the experts in this field by teaching our students the language of Jewish peoplehood.
What are the biggest challenges?
The hardest challenge is reaching the philanthropic level in Israel, where this doesn’t seem yet like the highest priority. But we are working on it, and already have some success in engaging local supporters!