When Katyusha rockets began falling on Northern Israel in July, Anne Lanski, one of the main organizers of a Chicago program pairing Chicago and Israeli teens, hastily made plans to relocate her group of 45 from the Galilee to central Israel.
From Chicago, parents made frantic calls to their children in Israel wondering if they were safe, and if they wanted to come home. The teens refused, Lanski said. Instead, they asked their counselors how they could help. In a matter of days, the American teens and the 40 Israelis joining them traveled to shopping malls to buy board games, cards and small toys for Israelis holed up in bunkers in the North.
This was just one of the earliest examples of charity performed by American youth, both during and after the 34-day war with Hezbollah. Across the United States, teenage and college-age Jews have begun a dynamic campaign to raise awareness and promote solidarity with Israel.
"Young people can't always give money, but they can act and give of themselves," said Joseph Hyman, the director of the New York-based Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy. When he heard of the Chicago Community Program's makeshift campaign to bring gift packages to Israeli children during the war, Hyman said that "just the physical act of being there speaks volumes."
The Chicago Community Program was not the only youth group in Israel that chose to continue its program despite the war. Roughly 10,000 youth visited Israel this summer, many of them during the war, and most stayed on, albeit with significant itinerary alterations. Only three out of 430 participants in the Conservative movement's United Synagogue Youth tour and only four out of 150 students on the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth trip returned home during the war.
In addition to sending packages to Israeli youth, the Chicago Community Program helped evacuate 10 teenage Israelis from their bomb shelters in order to join them for the trip.
"Half of the time, they'd come out to the bus, they'd have to run back into their shelter," said Lanski, the trip organizer, about the Israelis' attempts to leave their shelters. "It took all day to pick up just 10 kids."
New initiatives have also taken shape on college campuses in the wake of the Lebanon war.
The Jewish National Fund has begun organizing a trip for 250 college-age students and young adults under 30 to help replant some of the trees lost during the war. Participants must raise a minimum of $800 in order to attend, 20 percent of which will go towards the trip's expenses; the remaining funds will be put towards the JNF's 10-year $400 million campaign to rebuild Israel's North.
"As soon as the war happened, I think there was a collective recognition that the North needed our help," said Rebecca Kahn, the JNF's campus programs manager.
The JNF is also implementing an "I Heart Trees" campaign, a nationwide student fundraiser that will go towards replanting trees lost during the war.
Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish students, has also begun a multi-pronged campaign to help raise awareness about Israel in the wake of its fight with Hezbollah.
Given the complexities of campus politics, however, the campaign is perhaps more sensitive to differing viewpoints of Israel's successes, and failures, during the war.
The first part of Hillel's initiative involves creating a curriculum about the war, called "From Processing to Action," that will go out to campus Hillels across the country. The curriculum will address difficult facts about the war, including the number of Lebanese and Israelis killed, and will provide a springboard for further dialogue, said Elan Wagner, Hillel's emissary from the Jewish Agency.
"The curriculum provides for a plurality of views," Wagner said. "You don't have to agree with this policy or that policy to participate in the dialogue."
Hillel's efforts also include two trips this academic year that will bring students to Israel's North. The first, called "Leading Up North," will bring 500 Americans to Israel for a week to help repair buildings, roads and other destroyed infrastructure. The second trip, a much longer venture sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Israel's Masa organization, will station American youth for anywhere from three to eight months in elementary schools throughout the northern Galilee, where they will help as teaching assistants.
Hillel's campaign also involves bringing lecturers to campuses across the United States to discuss the war, as well as supporting local debate panels, lectures and conferences spearheaded by individual universities.
"We're seeing an upswing in local initiatives, and we?re trying to support them as best we can," Wagner said.
Many of these local events are far from Israeli propaganda campaigns. At a recent panel discussion cosponsored by the Jewish Students Association and the Muslim Students Association at Georgetown University, two professors jousted over the tactics of the war. Professor Ahmad Younis, criticizing Israel's bombardment, reportedly called on the audience to "humanize, communicate, and condemn what is to be condemned," while Professor Robert Lieber responded by calling Younis' arguments "cliché."
When asked about the role college students were playing in the campaign to rebuild Israel's North, Hyman acknowledged that while some campuses are still "hotspots for Israeli criticism," others are markedly more supportive.
"The real story is how many schools have created an environment for dialogue," he said. "It's a beacon of what's possible if we're willing to take the risk and talk it through."
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