‘Distanced but close’ approach to supporting Israel on campus

Reshit Ehrlich is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Chabad’s Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University.

Reshit Ehrlich

As a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow working with Chabad at Washington University, my main goal is to reach out to as many students as possible and help them establish a strong and meaningful connection to Israel and Judaism. Yet seemingly overnight, COVID-19 transformed life as we knew it. 

The days when 300 students gathered in a large hall in the Chabad House for Shabbat dinner, for example, are not possible now. However, despite the current restrictions in place, we have successfully delivered Shabbat-to-go packages, virtual experiences and in-person gatherings – at a safe distance – to more than 700 young people.

Because of new safety guidelines in place, the team at Chabad Washington U decided to focus our outreach efforts on quality over quantity, and this approach has enabled the kind of deep interpersonal connections that weren’t common before. In a pleasant surprise, the joy of getting together and basking in a shared connection as Jews is still very much alive. In fact, that connection has only grown since the outbreak began. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, I was able to set up one-on-one in-person outdoor meetings with numerous students this semester while following university guidelines.

I’m grateful that I came to St. Louis in 2019 before the pandemic started, because it gave me a chance to get to know members of the campus community well before the world turned upside down. 

Last year, we had more than 100 students sign up for Birthright Israel, and we were in the process of making the arrangements for a May 2020 trip when everything was put on hold. That said, we still had this cohort of students who were interested in deepening their connection to Israel and continuing their involvement in the Jewish campus community. From this group, we were able to recruit two BICEP (Building Israel Connections Engagement Project) Fellows, who are engaged in meaningful and ongoing Israel programming and leadership roles.

Washington University has been fortunate to avoid the flagrant anti-Semitism that exists at other colleges and universities. My peer Israel Fellows who serve on North American campuses often need to advocate for Israel when it’s being attacked. I engage in similar advocacy but in an environment that isn’t as acrimonious. Here, supporting Israel isn’t laser-focused on combating the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, but rather on amplifying what makes Israel and being Jewish special. We are able to focus on the positive and, by being creative, we are able to set the agenda that we wish to fulfill and are not compelled to react to Israel’s detractors.

To that end, our pro-Israel community has held many successful virtual events during the pandemic. From hosting Noam Bedein, who discussed the effects of global warming at the Dead Sea, and viral video blogger Nas Daily offering a fireside chat, to organizing a Fall Israel Fest featuring Eurovision Song Contest winner Neta Barzilai, we’ve helped students enjoy the full multicultural prism that is Israel from the comfort of their own living rooms. We even held a Hanukkah “Light Along” party with Israeli faculty and students both in America and Israel.

Admittedly, the virtual environment is not how many would normally envision Israel activism on a college campus, but I’m happy to take the “glass half full” approach to forging connections with Israel among college students in the era of COVID, and to focus on leveraging the many rich resources that are at my fingertips. 

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The goal remains the same: Build a loving, educated and robust Jewish community that has Israel at its core. I’m even more grateful that I’m here now, during our shared search for meaning and a more vibrant lifestyle during this uncertain time.