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Israel in 3D: Shaping a Pro-Israel Campus Community

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Wish you could tell Israel’s story, the whole story? In the spirit of spreading knowledge about and appreciation for the beautiful, complex, ancient and yet oh-so-modern Jewish homeland, we are excited to highlight young leaders who are out telling Israel's story in full. As part of our Israel in 3D blog series, we will be sharing interviews with young leaders who are connecting with Israel through the lenses of business, service, advocacy, art and more—and then sharing their passion and understanding with others.

To download this blog post as a handout, click here.

Max Finkel is a Senior in the List College Joint Program with Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He studies American History and Jewish Thought and interns for Congressman Jerrold Nadler in New York's Tenth District. He is a second-year Grinspoon-Morningstar Fellow for Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) at Columbia. ICC enlists allies from every segment of the university community to create a positive climate for Israel on campus.       

We're curious....what will you be up to in 2020?

I'll probably be in Israel studying or teaching something important to me.

Now to the heart of the matter...When did you first "meet" Israel? What inspired you to learn more? 

I first really met Israel when I moved there with my family right before sixth grade. Those two years showed me how great it was to be a kid in Israel, what a real community can look like and why being Jewish in America is only the tip of the iceberg. Since moving back to the United States, I've tried to replicate that feeling again. I've never found it anywhere but Israel.

How do you stay connected to Israel today? 

I play the role of a different sort of Israel activist because of my campus’s demographics and political climate. Unlike most other ICC fellows, I arrived to campus and entered a robust pro-Israel movement. While other fellows start by immediately creating the first advocacy groups their campuses have ever seen, the dynamic on my campus has already been formed by decades of back and forth that involves the whole spectrum of the university community—from freshman to tenured professors.

Therefore, I use my role with ICC to help other pro-Israel activists at Columbia coordinate their efforts, use their resources efficiently and provide support that they need to do make sure their voices are heard across campus. On a campus with such polarized discourse, it is important that we don't waste any time, resources or opportunities. At regular meetings, we discuss how to time initiatives as best we can to target the full spectrum of the Columbia community in a proactive way.

How do you share Israel with others? What motivates you to do this? 

My main role has not been to organize activities because Aryeh, JStreet and others have already created the pathway for doing those things. Rather, my main contribution has been to work between campus organizations. Last year, I was involved in meetings and conversations at Hillel to make sure that each one of these groups was leveraging its assets, contacts and programming most efficiently. That involved bringing them to the table to discuss their visions for campus discourse, even if they knew they’d have drastically different perspectives. These meetings weren’t perfect—it was hard to get everyone’s schedules aligned, let alone have a real discussion. But I think that they allowed the pro-Israel leadership to open up about the differences they had, and I’m proud that I could be a part of it.

The other work that I have done is to connect the initiatives run by established pro-Israel groups on campus with funding that they might otherwise miss. I have used the grant-writing skills that I developed thanks to ICC to help them. I secured funding that was important for bringing Alan Dershowitz to campus, for example, and I also helped to affiliate the Columbia Yom Haatzmaut programming last year with the rest of the events up and down the Upper West Side run by the JCC. Putting this kind of stuff together was only possible because I could maintain an independent’s perspective. I have the freedom to work more closely with Hillel and city professionals.

How has your relationship with Israel changed over time? 

As I have gotten older, I have become much better equipped to understand the way Israeli society works, the degrees to which different diaspora Jewish cultures were synthesized into an increasingly unified Israeli one, and the intricacies of the diaspora-Israel relationship. As I begin to understand these things ever further, I find myself only more in awe of the undertaking, the history that led to the present and the opportunities Israel might have in the future.

If you could tell the world one thing about Israel (or an aspect of Israel) what would it be? 

I think that the diversity of cultural offerings that Israel has demonstrates the vibrancy of Israeli society. Oftentimes, I think that Israel is painted as a monolithic state with limited room for discourse or introspection, but it's clear from even the front page of a newspaper that that couldn't be farther from the truth.

Israeli culture is exemplary of its high level of civil discourse. It is frustrating to hear detractors claiming that Israeli society is a monolithic body with no room for meaningful dissent or conversation. I know that even in the most seemingly mundane piece of media, there is evidence of a developed and active national conversation.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.