Hoos for Israel organizes cultural panel, hopes to initiate deeper conversations about Israel

The Israeli Cultural Panel talked about the realities of life in both Israel and the United States

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Tom Barkan, Michal Hartman, Carole Bibas and Yeshi Mengistu, the featured panelists, all come from different backgrounds.

Caitlin St. Amour | Cavalier Daily

The Brody Jewish Center hosted a panel of Israel Fellows, who detailed their diverse experiences in Israel and the United States, to a packed classroom in Maury Hall of undergraduate students Thursday. Israel Fellows are young Israeli adults who have completed army service and university study and travel for one to three years to university campuses around the world. 

Adam Cooper, a second-year College student and president of Hoos For Israel, organized the event with the hopes of initiating deeper conversations about Israel within the University community. 

“The goal was to bring in a diverse group of Israelis to speak about what Israel is, what their experiences are and also get their perspective of what's going on in Israel currently,” Cooper said. “Israel has so many nuances and complications to it. It's such a complex and diverse society. It's so important to understand the value of each narrative within this complexity.” 

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which is the largest Jewish non-profit organization in the world, places Israel Fellows at college campuses in the United States to foster relationships with Jewish college students. Fellows are tasked with engaging in authentic conversations about the niceties of Israel. Tom Barkan, Michal Hartman, Carole Bibas and Yeshi Mengistu, the featured panelists, each come from different backgrounds. From growing up in a communal Israeli settlement, known as a Kibbutz, to practicing Modern Orthodoxy to immigrating to Israel from France and Ethiopia, each fellow was connected through their common desire to explain Israeli culture to students.

Yeshi Mengistu immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with her family at the age of five and now serves as a fellow at Northeastern University. Michal Hartman, who is stationed at Washington University, grew up in a Modern Orthodox community in Israel. Despite their differing connections to Israel, both women use their experiences to educate young college students about their shared home. 

Tom Barkan was raised in a quaint Kibbutz, and is currently a fellow at the University of Connecticut. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, which requires young adults to enlist in military service, Barkan wanted to continue to serve his country through the Israel Fellows program.

“The fine thing about service is that never really ends,” Barkan said. “It's not about territories or higher grounds or vantage points. It's about perceptions and being here, in my opinion, is a modern battlefield. I think that being here is a continuation of serving my country.”

Carole Bibas, the University of Virginia’s current Israel Fellow, immigrated to Israel from Paris at the age of 18. As a fellow, she aims to help students from mixed backgrounds embrace their cultural duality. 

“I have this opportunity to talk about my experience and say to these students that I'm French, but I'm also Israeli,” Bibas said. “You can love two countries.” 

According to Cooper, hosting a diverse set of panelists was reflective of Israel as a whole and significant to the attendees’ understanding of Israel.

“I thought I'd try to get a diverse group that represented different segments of Israeli society,” Cooper said. “It’s valuable to the undergraduate students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, here that aren't exposed to the idea that Israel is this diverse, incredible place. It's important to understand just how many narratives there are.”

Melissa Nelson, a fourth-year Batten student and general member for the Jewish Leadership Council at U.Va. attended the panel to get a sense of the fellows’ perceptions of their home. 

“I actually went to Israel when I was in high school, but seeing it from an American perspective is very different from seeing it from an Israeli's perspective,” Nelson said. “Being able to hear the perspective of a native born Israeli, a modern orthodox Israeli, and immigrants —  that's invaluable. It helps me understand how many different aspects of Israel there really are.”

Nelson was struck by the intense respect for Israel each fellow expressed throughout the discussion. 

“The level of love each of them has for their country, especially when they spoke about their service in the IDF and serving their country, was really powerful and really spoke to me, personally,” Nelson said. 

The Israeli Cultural Panel spoke about the realities of life in both Israel and the United States. 

“I think this event was supposed to accomplish putting faces to what's going on in Israel —  like getting real, tangible experiences,” Cooper said. “There's so many different narratives to understand. And we hoped to give a taste of those narratives.” 

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