Pittsburghers prepare for college during gap year in Israel
EducationLearning to be leaders

Pittsburghers prepare for college during gap year in Israel

'The best agents for the Jewish people on campus are the students themselves'

Photo by Jose Miguel Sanchez via iStock
Photo by Jose Miguel Sanchez via iStock

Two Pittsburgh teens spending a gap year in Israel are learning to become campus leaders in the States.

Since September, Katriel Camp and Tali Itskowitz have participated in Nitzavim, a Jerusalem-based fellowship. Founded by Rabbi Adi Isaacs and the 7 Schwartz Brothers Leadership Trust, in partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the fellowship offers students regular instruction from professors and mentors while awarding college credit.

Class time is spent thinking about “what’s happening on campus and how we can make a difference for the Jewish future,” Camp, 19, said.

Katriel Camp. (Photo courtesy of Katriel Camp)

Discussion involves exploring the root of “buzzwords that are going on now against Israel and the Jewish people,” she continued. “We try to break them apart and think about why they are so unfounded.”

Along with talking about the history of Zionism and the Jewish state, “We learn ways to stand up for the truth, when to engage and not to engage, or when to debate and not to debate,” Itskowitz, 19, said.

The fellowship, which provides three credits from Hebrew University, is a “great way to be informed and learn how to become an active leader,” she added.

Camp, an Ellis School graduate, is studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Itskowitz, a Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh graduate, is at Midreshet Moriah. Both students are attending the University of Maryland this fall.

As part of the fellowship, students were divided into groups and asked to design projects to implement in college.

Itskowitz is working on an initiative to reach future Jewish classmates through tabling at athletic events.

“Sports games are big social scenes, so we are going to have a table where we can attract Jewish students on Maryland’s campus who might not go to a formal Jewish event because it could be intimidating,” she said.

Camp is hoping to provide a similar demographic with Shabbat dinner experiences.

At campuses with large Jewish populations, “some students don’t feel comfortable in an environment where there are so many people, so we developed a project where we connect students to make intimate familial Shabbat meals,” Camp said. The goal is that “people can be connected to their Judaism without it feeling overwhelming.”

Tali Itskowitz. (Photo courtesy of Tali Itskowitz)

The Pittsburghers are among a group of 80 fellows who’ve spent the year working with alumni and business mentors to design various projects. A showcase is scheduled for June 6. Based on judges’ determinations, winners will receive funding to implement the projects on campus, according to Nitzavim representatives.

“This program is literally the secret weapon that the Jewish people need,” Fellowship founder Rabbi Adi Isaacs said in a statement. “To engage Jewish students on campus as a peer is such a powerful concept, and it’s needed now more than ever.”

A survey of 310 Jewish students between May 6-8 by Benenson Strategy Group for Hillel International gauged current attitudes.

When asked if they felt a need to hide their Jewish identity from others on campus, 40% said yes; 28% said they have felt unwelcome in a campus space due to being Jewish or their feelings about Israel; and 32% of students said they have been “too scared to attend Jewish-related events (i.e., Shabbat dinner, Jewish programs, etc.).”

“Although the situation for Jewish students at secular campuses looks scary on the news, we are prepared to stand up for the Jewish people and Israel in any way we can,” Itskowitz said.

“There are so many like-minded students who want to make a difference, and it’s important to support them,” Camp said. “The best agents for the Jewish people on campus are the students themselves.”

Months remain until the Pittsburghers arrive in College Park, Maryland. Camp and Itskowitz can’t wait.

“It’s easy to put your head down and go to classes and get through it, but that won’t really do anything,” Itskowitz said.

Being a leader, Camp said, is imperative.

“Students have the ability,” she said, “to make the most impact on campus if they’re only given the opportunity.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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