In connecting American college students with Israel, Liel Zahavi-Asa brings a perspective developed in both countries.
The Berkeley, Calif., native made aliya with her family at age six to Efrat, but she returned to the United States for college, where she was active in Hillel and other Jewish endeavors.
Zahavi-Asa is now putting her education and experience to work at Rutgers Hillel as the first coordinator of an effort to provide support and inspiration to students before and after their Birthright Israel trips.
Launched on other campuses in 2007, Hillel’s IACT (Inspired, Active, Committed, and Transformed) program aims to recruit more Jewish students for the free trips to Israel and engage them in Jewish life upon their return.
“I am here to make sure every student possible gets involved and goes to Israel,” said Zahavi-Asa, 24, who officially began Aug. 13 on the New Brunswick campus.
She will draw on her associate degree in arts and human expression from Fullerton College in California, and a bachelor’s degree in expressive arts therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
As a Hillel leader at Lesley, she collaborated with other campus and area Jewish organizations, and reached out to unaffiliated Jewish students. She also worked in California and the Boston area as a Hebrew school instructor and tutor, teaching Judaism through drama.
In lieu of serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she performed alternate service by conducting drama therapy to help traumatized children and adults in Sderot who had suffered from frequent rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. “When you study therapy or the arts you learn to work with and understand people, which is important when doing outreach and trying to educate people,” said Zahavi-Asa.
The IACT initiative was launched in the Boston area and is being funded nationally by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston with the help of a “generous” grant from the Ed Fine Family Foundation of Arizona.
“This is our strategy for transforming Jewish campus life,” said Cheryl Aronson, CJP vice president of Israel and overseas. “We’re using the opportunity Birthright Israel has given to us to leverage Jewish student life on campus by tapping unaffiliated Jewish students…and trying to engage a critical mass to go to Israel together, return to campus inspired, active, and committed, and to not only be transformed, but commit to transforming their campus.”
CJP will cover training, coaching, mentoring, salary, and programming costs, and provide evaluation and data management for up to three years.
“We’ve always looked at this as trying to achieve something for the Jewish people without borders,” said Aronson, adding that once the program has demonstrated its value, the local community will take over its funding.
Aronson said Rutgers was selected among the latest cohort of 12 universities because it has the largest Jewish undergraduate population in the nation at 6,400, and will open its new $18 million headquarters in the spring. She also cited its “dynamic” leaders, executive director Andrew Getraer and associate executive director Rabbi Esther Reed.
“We only go where there’s opportunity,” said Aronson. “I’ve known Andrew a long time, and he truly is very exceptional.”
Getraer said Rutgers students make up two or three buses on every Birthright trip. Over the last 15 years, about 1,200 Rutgers students have taken part.
“We’ve never really had the resources to focus on Birthright recruiting,” said Getraer. “Liel brings experience in recruiting for Birthright and to take the follow-up to the highest level.”
Zahavi-Asa grew up in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank.
“Living there and then coming to America and getting the media version of what’s going on is very different,” she said. “My childhood consisted of wearing bulletproof vests on the school bus, driving to school in a bulletproof school bus, and worrying if another school bus with my friends on it was blown up if it was a few minutes late. It wasn’t until I got here and heard the political and media perspective and from members of the Jewish community that I realized that wasn’t a normal way to be raised.”
Although there have been terrorist attacks in her neighborhood, and Israelis and Palestinians still live separately, many in both communities have reached out to try and make peace.
“They both realize they don’t want to live in conflict forever, but none of that gets reported in the media,” said Zahavi-Asa. “It’s unfortunate it’s not being reported because there’s a lot of good work being done.”