Creating Meaningful Israel Connections on Campus
Updated: Oct 19
By Russell Gottschalk, Vice President for Campus Support Services, Hillels of Georgia
A little over halfway to Athens, after our Shinshinim (Israeli high school graduates participating in a year of service) were wowed by the cornucopia of high fructose corn syrup driven snacks available at a typical American gas station but before a Camp Coleman alum uplifted our spirits through song at University of Georgia’s (UGA’s) Hillel weekly Shabbat service, I glanced at Emory’s Israel Fellow, Maor Basson, in my passenger seat and asked, “You know REM is from Athens, right?”
He didn’t. Yet REM is one of his favorite bands which I discovered during our comparison of American cultural exports, a fruitful space for finding common ground between locally based Hillel staff and our Israeli colleagues. I informed him of Athens's rich musical history and REM’s unique role in that story. Maor shared that during his JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) training last summer, the soon to be schlichot (emissaries) bonded over a Kabbalat Shabbat song session where Hebrew lyrics were loaned to classic tunes. “That’s me in the corner” became “Shalom Alecheim.”
Our trip to Athens was in celebration of UGA Hillel’s Israel Shabbat, a regular program for Hillels of Georgia campuses where Israel Fellows and Shinshinim share their time, personalities, and family histories with students. By providing our students strong connections to various Israeli perspectives, we’re helping them better understand the diversity of the Jewish homeland. And we’re whetting their appetite for Hillel-supported, immersive Israel travel experiences like Birthright, Onward, and Maccabee Task Force.
This winter, we’re proudly bringing over 120 Hillels of Georgia students to Israel for a potentially life-changing Birthright experience. This is not hyperbole; Birthright Israel was a pivotal moment in my Jewish journey, and it continues to play a transformational role today. Since Birthright was created over 20 years ago, over 800,000 people have created meaningful relationships and experienced unique moments of self-discovery to deepen or expand their own Jewish identity. In that time, Hillels of Georgia has inspired thousands of college students to join this success story. When it comes to our mission of enriching Jewish college students’ lives, I can’t say enough about our unwavering commitment to connect students to Israel, both here in Georgia and abroad. In fact, “I haven’t said enough.”