A few months ago, one of the teens in my shul spoke to me about his concerns about going to college unprepared to confront anti Israel sentiments on campus. I thought he had a good point and suggested to him that he start an Israel advocacy group for teens. He took my advice and started Teens 4 Israel. He assembled a group of kids, connected with AIPAC, lobbied congressmen, and now, thanks to a group of generous donors who also felt there was a need for the program, we have our first Israel advocacy mission.
At first we were going to attend the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but our regional AIPAC director told us that AIPAC no longer allowed teens to come (I was there last week and I saw throngs of teenagers. I have to figure out how to sign my kids up for next year). So using some of my own connections, I helped to organize a trip that would be an unforgettable experience for the Omaha teens.
Our first stop today from the airport was my Alma mater Yeshiva University. YU has the largest and strongest Israel advocacy group of any college in America. When we arrived at YU we had arranged to have lunch with YUPAC. The students who run this group are truly remarkable. They spoke about how YU is unique in that they don't deal with issues that other colleges deal with; for instance combat ting Israel apartheid week. Therefore they have the advantage of being completely proactive. They recently had a lobbying mission to Washington DC with over 200 students. They brought a diverse group of YU students who originate from all over the US. Each student was sent to lobby his own congressman. Even Nebraska was represented by our own Adam Goldberg who is a sophomore at YU.
The YUPAC representatives explained the importance of Israel advocacy. They mentioned how they all have their own opinion on specific Israeli issues, but when it comes to advocacy they are unified in their goal of strengthening the US - Israel relationship. They gave our students advice on how they can find or if necessary start up their own pro Israel groups on whatever college campus they end up going to.
After meeting YUPAC we were joined by the president of the University, Richard Joel. The president is a very busy man and only had a few minutes, but he spoke with us about how Yeshiva is proud to be the strongest college campus in the world in its support of Israel and why he feels that as Jews we have an obligation to support Jews where ever they are in the world.
After our lunch meeting we got a tour of the campus. The girls went downtown to see Stern college for women and the boys stayed up town to see Yeshiva college for men. It was very exciting for me to take my teens from Omaha around YU. I am very proud to have attended Yeshiva. The years that I spent there were among the most formative years of my life. Much of my passion for Judaism and for working for the Jewish community was developed there and I feel like showing the kids around YU was a way of showing them the core of my own personal Jewish experience.
We went to the YU beit midrash and I introduced them to Rabbi Hershel Schacter - one of the preeminent Torah scholars in the world today. Rav Schacter was deep in study, but when he was told that a group of boys from Omaha was visiting he stood up to greet us and welcomed us warmly. I hope that one day they have an opportunity to hear him lecture and truly understand what makes Rav Schacter great.
After our respective tours we met up at the Jewish Museum on the upper East Side of Manhattan. The Museum was hosting an exhibit called The World Stage: Israel - by an artist named Khilnde Wiley. Wiley is a non-Jewish black artist who has traveled the world doing portraits of random people in what he thinks are interesting places. His most recent was Israel. He did a number of giant sized (9 foot) portraits of Ethiopian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, and Israeli Arabs. To try and describe these magnificent works of art could not do them justice. Looking at each inspired piece was in itself an experience worth coming for. After we toured the exhibit we stayed for a conversation with the artist. He spoke a bit about Israel and how visiting Israel completely changed the perceptions that he had about the country from the American media - in a good way. He truly admired the diversity that exists there and he thinks that it is this diversity that makes the world obsessed with Israel.
Mostly he spoke about his art. In the Q and A after his speech he touched on his personal history. He grew up in a large poor family in South central LA. His single mother made sure that he and his siblings became cultured and she sought out free learning opportunities for her children. She enrolled him in a painting class that was offered free because of a Jewish philanthropy and that is how he began his very impressive career in art. It sounded like he was very grateful to the Jewish people for that.
After the lecture we browsed the museum gift shop and then had dinner at a terrific kosher restaurant on the East Side called 18. After dinner we headed back to YU. YU has graciously put us up in the dorms for the evening.
Tomorrow we have another big day of Israel programming. I am so grateful to the donors for making this trip possible. The kids are learning a lot and my hope is that they will bring what they learn back to their peers in Omaha.