Educational trip

AEN brings campus administrators to Israel to learn about Jewish identity

Initiative, backed by Schusterman Philanthropies and Marcus Foundation, seeks to engage staff, not students, to improve Jewish student life at universities

A dozen university administrators from across the United States toured Israel and the West Bank over the past 10 days as part of an Academic Engagement Network initiative to educate them about Jewish identity, antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The trip marked the end of an almost yearlong program – AEN’s Signature Seminar Series – in which participants learned about these issues and related ones. It was the second such trip to Israel for campus administrators that AEN has run, Naomi Greenspan, the director of AEN’s Improving the Campus Climate Initiative, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

AEN was founded in 2015, with funding primarily provided by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Marcus Foundation, in order to combat the issue of antisemitism on campus. Unlike other university-focused initiatives, which looked at students, AEN targeted its efforts on faculty with the belief that this would have longer-lasting impact. “They’re not going to be on campus for a year. They can potentially be on campus for 30 or 40 years,” Greenspan said.

Initially, AEN focused on faculty – from department chairs down to lecturers – but in 2020, the organization expanded to include administrators, who also play critical roles in student life on campus, Greenspan said. AEN currently has a network of hundreds of faculty members that have been through its seminars and is now working to bring in administrators through similar programs and with help from that existing faculty network.

The participants on this month’s trip, from June 5 to 14, all held positions relating to student affairs, student engagement, university life or diversity, equity and inclusion. The universities were a mix, from institutions with large Jewish populations, like New York University, to ones with smaller populations, like Colorado State University. In some cases, Greenspan said, the schools were or are experiencing antisemitic issues on campus, while others may have had more issues with general white supremacy and racism, but not against Jews specifically.

The Israel trip included visits to significant religious and cultural sites in Israel, like the Western Wall, Temple Mount and Yad Vashem, as well as meetings with Hebrew University and Haifa University and discussions with significant Israeli thinkers and cultural figures, some Jewish and some not. In addition, the group traveled to Ramallah to meet Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster.

In the Signature Seminar Series, Greenspan said AEN educates the administrators not only about antisemitism but also broader ideas of Jewish identity so they can better provide for services and understanding to the Jewish student body, which may or may not be particularly observant of religious laws.

“If you are only thinking about providing kosher food and granting exemptions for Jewish holidays, you’re missing a big chunk of the Jewish population, which may not be religious,” she said.

Jason Pina, who has worked in administrative roles at multiple universities over the course of some three decades, told eJP he had not encountered large Jewish populations on campus until he entered his current position as vice president for global programs and university life at NYU. Coming into the role, he said he knew immediately that this was a topic he had to learn about in order to help his students more effectively and with greater care.

“I worked at six other [universities], but it was nothing like living in New York City and working at NYU, which is known for enrolling so many Jewish students and employing a lot of Jewish faculty and staff,” he said. “So I knew if I wanted to be effective at my job, I had to learn more than I knew.”

Pina said he believed the seminar series and trip to Israel had helped him on this front. “After 30 years, feeling that I now have more confidence to do my job is a strange feeling,” he said, speaking on the final day of the Israel tour.

However, he said that while the program provided him with greater insight into the experiences of Jewish students, he stressed that he was wary of giving off a sense that he now understood everything. 

“One of the biggest takeaways [for me] is not… assuming that you now can interact with [anyone who is] Jewish or Arab on this because you spent 10 days [in Israel]. We’ve met people [on the trip] who’ve been here for decades and this is what they do for their living, and they can’t articulate everything that’s in their heart. So how am I going to do that after 10 days?” he said.

Pina said that taking part in this program also signaled to his Jewish students that he cared about them. He recalled telling a group of students about a trip he was taking to Washington, D.C. – to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – as part of the series. “They just looked at me like they couldn’t believe that I would take my free time to learn about their community. [Maybe they] feel like they don’t necessarily always feel seen outside of the [Jewish students’] center or outside of the community, and they were so happy that I was going on that trip,” he said.

Robin Mitchell-Stroud, another participant, who recently became director of student engagement programs in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California, said she had almost no interaction with Jewish students at her previous job at the University of Oklahoma. 

She too said that she quickly felt the need to learn about the topic. Coming away from the trip, Mitchell-Stroud said she felt a greater understanding of the nuances of Jewish identity and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of which she believes will make it easier to connect with Jewish students. She said this is not only useful when there are negative incidents on campus, but also will better allow her to facilitate meaningful religious and spiritual programs at USC.

“One of the things that I picked up in Jerusalem was a sign that says, ‘Shalom y’all,’ which I love because I’m from Oklahoma. And so I just [want to have] that in my office so that Jewish students immediately know when they come in that they’ve got a safe space and that I care,” she said.

For Maurice Gipson, who is both an administrator and faculty member, the trip and the program not only gave him greater insights into Jewish issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also more general tools and understandings about conflict resolution, which he said he intends to use back home. 

“Since coming, I’ve been able to broaden the scope a little bit and I’ve really been even more interested in conflict resolution,” said Gipson, vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity at the University of Missouri and an instructor of history at Arkansas State University.

“I think it could be instructive for my campus: As we deal with conflict in our own country and state… how do we still thrive on campus?” he said.