Reclaiming the Conversation: The Revival of the American Union of Jewish Students

By Aliza Lifshitz

At a time when millions of dollars are funneled into hiring Jewish professionals to manage Jewish life on campus with little or no say from the students they claim to serve, the American Union of Jewish Students is attempting to take back the conversation of what it means to be a Jewish college student.

Founded in 1969, the American Union for Jewish Students has a tumultuous history, one which is shrouded in the technicalities of what exactly constitutes an “up-and-running” organization. AMUJS is a part of a much larger network of students known as the World Union for Jewish Students (WUJS). WUJS was founded by Zvi Lauterpacht in Antwerp in April 1924, with the intention of serving as a support and action network for students mostly in European universities confronting anti-Semitism on an institutional level. Lauterpacht, a professor in London, recruited his colleague Albert Einstein to be the first sitting President of WUJS in 1925. Throughout its history, WUJS has comprised student unions from many different countries, and has been funded by various international Jewish organizations such as the World Zionist Organization. Although it shut down in 1954 due to lack of funds, the organization reestablished itself in the 1960’s with a renewed vigor for the aid of Soviet Jewry.

Since its inception, the American Union for Jewish Students mostly paralleled WUJS in its activities. In the 1970’s, WUJS was a member of the World Zionist Organization and was receiving funding from them. However, many of members of WUJS were to the left of the Jewish establishment on Israel/Palestine issues following the Six Day War, and opposed the organization’s membership to the WZO on ideological grounds. Following an incident in which the international student organization adopted a resolution which called for the recognition of national Palestinian identity and rights alongside that of Israelis, the tension between WUJS and the World Zionist Organization finally caused WUJS to leave its membership and ultimately destabilize. Matthew Kalman writes that this claim was part of a larger effort in the 1970’s, post-Yom Kippur War to centralize power in the Jewish Zionist world in order to push a more hard-line security agenda in Israel, which the WZO saw WUJS as failing to do. Meanwhile, although the American branch of the organization was instrumental in organizing the movement for Soviet Jewry, it had a hard time competing with Hillel International for student engagement and finally fizzled out by the mid-1990’s. AMUJS was reestablished in 2004, by Adam Daum and David Steinberg, and admitted back into the WUJS in 2006, but was only able to do so with the financial assistance of Hillel. While AMUJS will partner with Hillel in creating networks and campaigns, they are not officially connected to the institution. Over the years it has become increasingly difficult for young Jews to maintain a voice in the organizing of AMUJS with the rise of big donors and behemoth Jewish identity-centered institutions such as Hillel International. Because of this, AMUJS’s mid-2000’s revival gained little traction and fizzled out once more.

Recently, however, many Jewish student activists have been rallying to change the current landscape. Inspired by the activism of Jewish students throughout the twentieth century – specifically young Jewish activism around the struggle for Soviet Jewry and labor rights in the US – they are trying to revive what has been for several years a dormant Jewish student tradition. In late 2015, in an effort to respond to the current political and historical moment, two students, Dan Smith and Mayer Stein, decided to re-establish AMUJS. They both had family members who were involved in earlier versions of the organization. They worked to pilot chapters in New York and New England to gauge interest and recruit student leaders. Last spring, the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life At NYU organized a panel comprised of student leaders from various colleges to discuss what forms of student activism and issues are of particular interest on their respective campuses.

This past September, a smaller meeting was held in New York, consisting of student leaders from campuses across New York and New Jersey, including Rutgers, Barnard, FIT, City College and NYU. “This meeting is the start of a movement to bring the voices of student leaders back to the center of conversations around campus issues and anti-Semitism” said Raphael Levi, a sophomore at Rutgers University and the programming chair of AMUJS NY/NJ chapter. The topics discussed ranged from the role of diaspora Jews within global Jewish conversations, major and minor anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses, logistical details regarding what a renewed chapter could look like, and how to best create a larger network of student leaders. One of the recurring topics of the meeting was the goal of shifting the focus of Jewish campus life away from BDS and towards the creation of a more versatile, diverse, and empowered network of students. On October 1st, students from AMUJS marched together in the March for Racial Justice in both New York City and New Haven, marking the first instance of collective activism since the reinstitution of the organization.

Misha Vilenchuk, acting chairman of AMUJS, who wrote his master’s thesis on the history of the Soviet Jewry movement, described his vision for the group as a peer-led, caucus-type organization that can represent divergent student voices across campuses so that the relationship between Jewish institutions and students becomes more dynamic and less ‘top-down.’ “The previous generation of Jewish activists became the Jewish leaders of today. They invested their time, energy, and resources into bettering the Jewish community,” Vilenchuk remarked. “I believe that Jewish students today care about their identities and want to better the Jewish community. They are willing to invest their time and resources, but don’t have an outlet that allows them to do so. We want to create connections between Jewish students so that they can connect with and learn from one another.” Himself a recent graduate, Vilenchuk only intends to remain at AMUJS until the network is strong enough to be run directly by students themselves, at which point he plans to resign. Unlike other Jewish student organizations that are actually run by full-time, middle-aged professionals, AMUJS will actually practice what it preaches: total student empowerment.

On November 12th, a group of student leaders convened at Northeastern University for a New England AMUJS interest meeting. Students from Northeastern University, Brandeis, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Harvard, Boston University, and Worcester State University attended to work through vision planning and issues of common concern for Jewish students in their area. Currently, the NY/NJ chapter is working on a campaign to address a startling rise in anti-Semitic and extremist incidents and rhetoric at Rutgers University, including the employment of a former member of the Syrian Assad regime on the university faculty and the appearance of swastika graffiti on campus buildings.

By empowering Jewish students to connect across campuses, share organizing skills, and build power on a national level, the American Union of Jewish Students may develop the Jewish leaders of tomorrow and usher in a new era – one in which student voices are at the center.

Aliza Lifshitz is a sophomore in Barnard College and a member of the American Union of Jewish Students. She can be reached at al3291@barnard.edu.

This article originally appeared in The Current; reprinted with permission.