Authentic relationships

Navigating Gen Z Israel conversations

In Short

Working with college students on Israel conversations can be fraught, but it can also be transformative.

There is consensus on very few issues in the Jewish community these days, but one thing we all seem to agree on is that educating the next generation about Israel is a top priority. As a recent college student myself, and now student relationship coordinator at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America responsible for working with Gen Z college students, I’ve learned how to structure important Israel conversations for emerging Jewish leaders so that they are personally relevant and nurture lasting connections. 

Many of the college students I work with strive to apply their commitment to social justice to their relationship with Israel. For each student, the dynamic is unique, but it usually means grappling with how to be in relationship with Israel and how to hold the country they feel a connection to, to a standard they feel to be morally just. 

I see my role as one of walking with these students as they develop their vision and dream of the Israel they want for the future. Often, that means modeling for them ways to embrace the stickiness and messiness of having aspirations for Zionism beyond the current reality. Frequently, students struggle because they feel they should have both their identity and their positions about the State of Israel “figured out.”  But this ignores that college students are still learning and growing. Why would we ask students to have a formulated position on Israel when they are still trying to figure out the world around them, and indeed their own identities?  

After working with Gen Z college students in recent years, I’ve developed the following three-step approach toward helping them cultivate an engaged attachment to Israel: 

Identify where students are in their journeys. This often requires personal vulnerability – being open about what you do not know, what you struggle with, your own red lines – and modeling a developmental process. By building authentic relationships, I am able to match students to the right next opportunity, such as an Israel study abroad, summer internship in Tel Aviv, or an in-depth learning opportunity in Jerusalem. I always tell them why I thought of them for whatever program I am recommending.

Be rigorous. Students are not looking for travel vacations. They want to bring the same level of curiosity and depth to learning about Israel as they do to other areas of their university studies. To be a college student is to be constantly pushed out of one’s comfort zone through encounters with new ideas. It should be the same with Israel and Judaism. Just because a student has not engaged in traditional “Jewish” learning before does not mean that they cannot jump in the deep end. Offering rigorous study and experiences deepens the trust of the relationship. Hartman programs allow for students to engage in deep learning without the expectation that there is only one way to critically think. We push students to feel the texts, engage with them, and figure out how Jewish ideas can frame their thoughts. 

Give students a seat at the table. But give them their own space too. I had the chance to bring Gen Z college students to Hartman’s summer Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem with 150 baby boomers, gen X’ers, and millennials. The students felt respected by the intergenerational community and had the opportunity to create helpful networking opportunities. Students also appreciated hearing how older generations approach what it means to be a Zionist today. Integrating students was helpful, but so was separating them out for their own reflection time. They needed space to process what they were learning with their peers. And they appreciated having access to their teachers to voice their opinions. 

Working with college students on Israel conversations can be fraught, but it can also be transformative. These three steps – building genuine relationships, being rigorous and including students as partners in the larger conversation – have helped me increase the impact of my work. 

Avigail Schneiman is campus student relationship coordinator at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.