Campus beat

Amid rising antisemitism at universities, L.A. Federation revamps its Campus Impact Network for students

Renewed initiative is aimed at teaching student participants community organizing principles, not 'hasbara,' to help them contend with hate at their schools

Since Oct. 7, universities across the country have seen a major increase in antisemitism on campuses. Jewish students have been bullied, harassed and physically assaulted; Hillels have been vandalized; pro-Palestinian groups on campus have held rallies accusing Israel of genocide and supporting Hamas’ actions, referring to them as “resistance.”

Many administrators have struggled to effectively respond and protect Jewish students, who have at times been forced to hide or barricade themselves in rooms to avoid anti-Israel mobs. 

“Many layers of challenge are present together” at the University of Southern California, according to the executive director of its Hillel, Dave Cohn. In addition to dealing with the anxiety, shock and pain in the aftermath of the attacks themselves, students have since been “seeing their friends, their peers, their roommates, their RAs, embrace [far-left, anti-Israel] positions without a second thought. It is everywhere, and it is present for nearly everyone,” he told eJewishPhilanthropy

Prior to Oct. 7, Cohn said, most instances of antisemitism were localized, only affecting students who were closely involved in the incident. Now, “overwhelming majorities of Jewish students are seeing these events unfold [and] are being asked to process all of that and to somehow continue to go about their daily lives as college students on campus, under a cloud and under a really intense amount of pressure,” he said. “It’s a scale I’ve never seen before in my career.”

To address the troubling trend, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles relaunched the Campus Impact Network, an initiative to help support Jewish college students across L.A., including those at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The aim of the program is to connect Jewish students and empower them to promote a positive view of Israel and become effective leaders, said Joanna Mendelson, the federation’s senior vice president of community engagement.

“Universities in the Greater Los Angeles area have similar concerns as it relates to antisemitism on their campuses,” said Mendelson. “The campuses are stronger when united. The federation believes that helping to align these campuses and create community is a powerful approach in these disconcerting times.”

A first iteration of the Campus Impact Network, in 2014, received a $250,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to provide Jewish students with tools to improve their leadership and activism and build relationships on their campuses and with civic leaders, with the goal of creating a more positive environment on campus. 

“The federation has previously operated this program, but modified it to meet today’s needs,” Mendelson said, and “that includes making funding available now to support student programming; bringing speakers to campus to support each of the schools; and convening a conference in January to engage the student body, in partnership with local L.A. Hillels.”

The network will be helping students to understand community organizing principles, rather than focusing on hasbara (a more traditional public diplomacy effort that elevates the Israeli narrative), Dan Gold, UCLA Hillel’s executive director, said. 

“Hillels are incredible organizations built to service the pluralistic Jewish community on a campus,” Gold told eJP. “Fighting BDS was never supposed to be part of it. When it consumes all of our time, as it does these days, having federation come in and help us do that will help us reach other goals as well,” he said. “It’s vitally important to have the federation willing to listen to the needs of Hillels and do something that fills a need and helps us, rather than makes us have to put in more time, as some partnerships and programs do,” Gold added.

Working in coordination with the Hillels at USC, UCLA, Santa Monica College and Hillel 818 (which represents a number of schools), among others, CIN will operate as a hybrid initiative, engaging a set cohort for emerging leaders, while providing resources and education for other Jewish students who want to get involved, Mendelson added. Through on-site visits with students, training them in advocacy and supporting student-led events on campus that center on Israel, the network “is working to ensure that Los Angeles Jewish students receive the urgent support and vital resources they need during this time of rising antisemitism on campuses,” Mendelson added. 

At CSUN, most students commute and are juggling other jobs or family responsibilities that keep them busy — so student life isn’t as well-established as on other campuses, Matt Baram, Hillel 818’s executive director, told eJP. “Our incidents are typically smaller in nature, our campus is typically more quiet,” Baram said. “What that also means is that for our students, when something does happen,” he added, “it’s even more shocking to them.”

The Hillel directors are in regular communication with one another, “venting to each other and asking each other for advice and consultation and mentorship,” Baram said. “The Campus Impact Network can actually organize those conversations to be strategy conversations, as opposed to venting,” he said. “Federation being involved can help us really think of each other as strategic partners as opposed to therapists of the moment.”

The network is housed at the federation, and, with the oversight of its community engagement team, will collaborate with other federation leadership programs. Recent UCLA grad Jasmine Beroukhim will serve as the Sylvia Price Campus Impact Network Program Manager, drawing on her experience with advocacy and Israel education as chair of Hillel International’s Israel Leadership Network and president of Bruins for Israel, creating campaigns and programming within the campus community.? The position is funded by philanthropist and former Hillel Foundation assistant director/temporary director Sylvia Price, who died earlier this month at 97. 

During their yearlong stint at CIN, participants will receive leadership training, particularly in civic mindedness, coalition-building, fighting on-campus antisemitism, professional development and effective advocacy; microgrants to support campus programming; and ongoing support for further needs on campus. In a community-building effort, network members will also have opportunities to attend retreats with other Jewish students in L.A. 

Once the training and retreats begin, Gold said, “it will have an immediate tangible impact on giving students the tools, the training and resources to rethink some of the way they do their programming and some of the way they lead, to connect with and engage with students that are outside of the normal bubble that they work with… It takes an extraordinarily unique effort for a Jewish student leader, to do their work as a Jewish student leader and connect outside of the students that are right in front of them. And so this program, and the support that the federation will be giving, really helps that happen.”

“The federation is helping to organize these conversations and helping us think strategically together as partners instead of isolated in our own communities. Because nothing stays isolated to one school,” Baram told eJP. “Sometimes you need someone to force you to have those communal conversations and to get out of your own bubbles…that’s really valuable.”

Baram said he also expects the network to have an impact on the nearly 6,000 Jewish students who attend CSUN, Pierce College and Valley College — schools that fall under the Hillel 818 umbrella and whose students are mostly anchored to L.A. “It’s really important for federation to show those students that the Jewish community throughout Los Angeles is here to support them…as things continue to unfold.”