By Lilah Katz
On the first floor of Penn’s Hillel building, I eat every meal of every day. Not only is the food kosher, but it tastes better than any other dining hall on campus. I don’t plan who I’ll sit with: At any given moment during meal times, I can walk into the dining hall and there will be friends with whom I can eat. In between and after classes, on the second floor, I study with members of the same community. I work at the communal tables so that I can chat with friends as they come in and out, or I’ll go into a conference room if I need to focus on an assignment. If I need any help, there is always someone there to read over an essay or explain a concept.
In all senses of the word, Hillel is my home on campus: it’s the building where I feel the deepest sense of security and belonging. This, I imagine, is what the older Jewish generations want for their young adults. Jews congregating to learn, eat and pray together. Jews building lifelong friendships and connections with each other. Jews marrying each other, and passing down their same experiences and love of Judaism to their children so that the traditions may continue.
But what do we do if a piece of this puzzle is missing? If this ever-progressing cycle of Jewish life for young people, with its resources, amenities, opportunities and constant quest to maintain relevancy and excitement in the lives of young Jews, lacks a critical element?
In current everyday life, a Jewish college student is not made to confront the concept of Israel. They can, of course, seek it out if they wish, but more often than not, they easily go through their four years on a college campus without forming a connection to the Jewish homeland. Free Israel programs continue to benefit the same handful of enthusiastic students over and over again. For the most part, Jewish college kids simply do not engage with Israel on a regular or meaningful basis.
College campuses have a reputation for breeding anti-Zionism. In reality, most college students in the general population avoid the topic of Israel, knowing that it is contentious and not caring enough to form a strong opinion. However, there is a rising cultural need for young people to know and speak out on any given topic. The passionate pursuit of knowledge and justice often seems to lead to a naivety in the understanding of geopolitics and social action. The energy and self-righteousness of youth combines with a lack of attention to detail and nuance, particularly with the influence of social media in the past several years. History lessons have been reduced to online infographics. Jewish students, confused by the flawless childhood image they got of Eretz Yisrael in Hebrew school as their peers and professors paint a damning picture of an oppressive colonial state, recede.
Wanting to stand on the right side of history, Jewish college kids distance themselves from Israel. Sometimes, they even go in the opposite direction and actively oppose Zionism to prove themselves as the “good” kind of Jew to the progressive movement.
In my observation, for Jewish students who remain committed to Israel and politically engaged, this phenomenon causes one of two reactions: 1) they push farther right, to combat the left’s anti-Israel narrative, or 2) they attempt to exist in both the worlds of progressive politics and of Jewish Zionism, squeezing into boxes that might not fully apply in order to fit in with these communities.
Uplifting and legitimizing progressive Zionism, which is invalidated on college campuses from the left and right, is the key to restoring the Israel piece of the Jewish continuity puzzle for the emerging and future generations of young Jews. At my own Hillel, I saw the need to fill this void and started a club for progressive Zionists to gather, converse and build community. We unpack, feeling unsafe in other progressive political spaces at Penn to discuss topics in Israeli politics such as environmental justice and LGBTQ rights. We create this space, all while holding an unwavering dedication to the existence of Israel and acknowledgment of Palestinian presence and rights in the land.
Left-leaning Zionist students need a space to process their place in between what is posed as two competing sides. Without Israel, Judaism ceases to exist. Throughout their lifetime, current young people have known only a strong and protected Jewish state, so Israel’s existence is taken for granted. Once college Jewish communities start catering to the niche of politically active left-leaning Zionists and teach that Zionism and progressivism are by no means mutually exclusive, Jewish students will feel safe believing in the state of Israel again. From there, the next generations will embrace more of a positive, nuanced and informed relationship with their homeland.
Lilah Katz is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. This piece originally appeared in the congregation’s Scroll newsletter.