Capitalizing on Innovation

April 8, 2013

On campuses across the United States, students are exploring the diversity and vibrancy of Israel, forging connections across political and religious differences, and creating new avenues to define their relationships with Israel now and for the future.

Every year, thousands of college students return from Taglit-Birthright Israel, their interest in Israel sparked, their appetite to learn more whetted. Increasingly, these alumni — and many other young adults like them — are finding meaningful avenues to tap their new found excitement and to deepen their connection to and knowledge of contemporary Israel. Hungry to understand the country “behind the headlines” and to explore its vibrant economic and cultural landscape, students are engaging with Israel through a growing array of effective but unheralded programs that are enabling them to learn and talk about Israel in more sophisticated ways.

The reverberations are being felt on campuses across the United States. Indeed, college students are voting with their feet by creating and availing themselves of opportunities to engage deeply with modern Israel on their own terms and in ways that unite rather than divide, energize and inspire rather than demoralize. Three areas that have proven particularly valuable for young people to forge meaningful ties to Israel are business and entrepreneurship, academia and the arts.

1. BUSINESS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP: At the University of Michigan, students looking to involve their peers with Israel’s innovative, cutting-edge side created the Tamid Israel Investment Group, which was incubated at Hillel and which offers year-round Israel business projects culminating in a summer fellowship with an Israeli company. By connecting business-minded students with Israeli start-ups and providing unique opportunities, such as managing a Tel Aviv-based investment fund and consulting for a start-up in Herzliya, Tamid offers hands-on experiences that respond directly to students’ interests and career goals while connecting them to Israel as a dynamic and successful “Start Up Nation.” College students across the country are excited about replicating this model, and Tamid is now expanding to campuses throughout the U.S. with the help of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

Similar models are sparking growing student attention and participation, including Birthright Excel, which places outstanding Birthright alumni in summer internships with Israeli companies, and Israel and Co., which organizes trips for MBA students to Israel and includes Israeli entrepreneurship and high-tech as part of the MBA curricula. These programs are creating more—and more accessible—entry points for engaging with Israel and Jewish life. And they are helping to foster a new generation of business leaders who are knowledgeable and passionate about Israeli innovation and ingenuity.

2. ACADEMIA: Beyond business, students from every discipline are broadening their understanding of the realities of contemporary Israel through the blossoming academic field of Israel studies. Boosted in part by thousands of Birthright alumni looking for ways to stay connected with Israel, these courses are enabling university students to delve more deeply and to engage with diverse aspects of Israeli society in a familiar academic environment. Previously unengaged students are availing themselves of course offerings that allow them to connect through Israeli history, film, politics and sociology. And those students already involved can deepen their learning through the classroom, in a framework disconnected from advocacy.

The rise of independent Israel studies programs and multi-disciplinary courses is ensuring that a growing number of college students have the chance to develop both their knowledge of Israel as a multifaceted country and their relationships and mentorships with top-notch Israeli academics. Indeed, Israel studies have exploded in recent years, with a 69 percent increase in the number of Israel-related courses on U.S. campuses over the past decade.

And demand is reflected not just in the numbers. As the field has matured, courses have become broader as well as deeper, with classes on numerous topics beyond the conflict. Last semester, for example, Yale offered a class called “Dynamics of Israeli Culture,” while Princeton is now offering a course on “Israeli Humor and its Roots.” The feedback has been encouraging: a recent study found that students enrolled in courses taught by visiting Israeli professors were nearly unanimous—97 percent—in saying that the classes had expanded their knowledge of Israel, given them richer backgrounds and broadened their views. An overwhelming majority of students reported that the discourse in their classrooms was respectful and open, and that the courses significantly increased their interest in learning more about and spending time in Israel.

3. THE ARTS: Israel’s fertile arts and culture scene has been another exciting avenue through which college students are engaging with contemporary Israel. From film and fine arts to dance and music, Israeli artists are introducing young people to the country’s rich, sophisticated culture. The Schusterman Visiting Artists Program, for example, is bringing well-regarded Israeli filmmakers, choreographers, musicians and writers to campuses including the University of Florida, Harvard, Michigan State and Berkeley. The artists serve as teachers and mentors, providing a window into a country that many only hear about through the narrow lens of political conflict.

A recent independent study examined the impact of Israeli art and artists on young people and found that, after being exposed to visiting artists, college students previously unfamiliar with the country gained a more nuanced perspective on Israelis and a new picture of Israel as a lively, modern, multicultural nation. Participants who had previous experience with Israel, meanwhile, found that engaging with Israeli art evoked positive memories and reinforced a sense of solidarity with Israel. Many students surveyed expressed their desires to visit or study in Israel as a result of their interactions with Israeli artists.

From business and entrepreneurship to academia and the arts, new programs are engaging students with Israel in organic and creative ways. Moreover, they are reaching students who likely never would have become involved through traditional routes and, in the process, introducing students to a more holistic view of Israel as an intellectual, cultural, scientific and technological hub. These initiatives are exciting because of their innovative aspects, but even more so because they are working. On campuses across the United States, students are exploring the diversity and vibrancy of Israel, forging connections across political and religious differences, and creating new avenues to define their relationships with Israel now and for the future.

Campus life is a platform of multifaceted opportunities for students to explore and strengthen their identities in ways that speak to their varied needs and interests. Learning about and engaging with Israel should be no exception, and we should celebrate, support and expand on innovative efforts that are proving the rule.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Contact Magazine.

Lisa Eisen Profile Image
Lisa Eisen

Co-President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies