Last month, 130 Jewish college students and young professionals from throughout North America staged a mock Zionist Congress in Miami Beach. And like at all Zionist Congresses, dating back to the first one presided over in 1897 by Theodor Herzl in Switzerland, attendees voiced a wide range of perspectives and opinions on the Jewish state.
Turns out young Zionists are not all cut from the same cloth.
“I thought it would be all right-wing, but it wasn’t,” Oren Gotesman, a junior at U.C. Santa Cruz, said of the Young Zionist Leadership Conference, held Jan. 20 to 22 in Florida. “What impressed me the most was how open people were to hearing one another … It was really about expressing yourself.”
Gotesman, 20, was one of at least 10 Bay Area students that attended the conference, which was run by the World Zionist Organization and included Zionist programming, leadership training and professional development. There was also educational programming about Israel’s culture, politics and history.
Amelia Cavalier, 22, a San Francisco State University senior from Walnut Creek, originally was reluctant to attend. “I had gone to some less-than-exciting Israel advocacy seminars, so I really thought not to go to YZL,” said Cavalier.
But she did end up going and “was blown away.” For her also, the diversity of the participants was a huge draw. However, while she enjoyed meeting people from all over the continent, she was also appreciative of the work done in regional groups. “I made meaningful connections, especially with people in the Northwest [mostly Bay Area] group, which will help us in doing joint programming among the different campuses,” Cavalier said.
Affiliated with the Israel Coalition at San Francisco Hillel, Cavalier was offered a WZO internship on the final day of the conference; she took it.
The main goal of the conference was “to bring together the future of Zionist leadership for discussion about Zionism, their individual connections to Israel, and what being a Zionist means,” according to Samantha Vinokor, WZO’s communications director for the YZL conference.
The mock Zionist Congress was one of the conference’s central programs. Presenting issues such as illegal immigration to Israel, the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap and whether diaspora Jews should have the right to vote in Israeli elections, the congress was specifically designed to encourage discussions and elicit different views — for attendees this year represented an unprecedented variety of Zionist persuasions.
Most of the college students were affiliated with a Hillel chapter or an Israel action committee; the young professionals in attendance were leaders from a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious Zionist youth groups; and others were representing pro-Israel organizations with campus initiatives — from StandWithUs on the right to J Street on the left.
The conference included a keynote address by former Israeli Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon, who talked about serving under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (when Birthright Israel and MASA Israel Journey were created, marking the first time that the Israeli government made a decision to invest in young adults in the diaspora).
Gotesman, who is outreach coordinator for the Santa Cruz Israel Action Committee, thought that speech was “great,” but he was even more impressed that the conference included a session on building bonds with campus Muslim groups.
Raina Blumenthal, a 19-year-old from Windsor in Sonoma County, said she gained valuable insights from conference goers who had spent more time in Israel than she had (one Birthright trip last summer).
“People who had done a gap year program there, or who were born or lived there for some time, could share even more in-depth information with the rest of us,” said the sophomore at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, where she is a leader with Hillel.
San Francisco State senior Brianna Brostoff, a student intern at Hillel for three years, was one of those who had spent a gap year in Israel. “It was Young Judaea Year Course that really opened me up to the world of Zionism and loving Israel,” the 22-year-old from Los Angeles reflected. “Growing up in the Jewish community was important to me. I feel particularly safe being surrounded by Jews. Being in Israel felt like an extreme version of that community, especially at that time in my life. Living in Israel changed my perspective on everything.”
Many of the local attendees said they enjoyed the opportunities to explore and share those personal and emotional connections to Israel.
Blumenthal was impressed by an art activity in which students introduced themselves though drawings that they made to represent what young Zionist leadership meant to them. Cavalier pointed to the secular Friday night service, and an elective program about the intersection of the Israeli music scene with Rastafarian traditions. “It really got us singing and talking,” she said.
Gotesman and Brostoff noted that they would have wanted more of an emphasis on core political issues and current news headlines from Israel.
“There was no discussion of the occupation, of a potential Palestinian state, or about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu as a leader,” Brostoff said. “It was all educational. It was too civil, without enough controversy. They were playing it very safe, but I also understand that dealing with those topics wasn’t really the goal of the conference.”
Nonetheless, Brostoff and the others said they were happy they made the trip, warmed by the memory of gathering together on the beach at the close of the conference to sing “Hatikvah.”