Through “Phoenix” Program Israeli Hillel Students Deepen Awareness of Holocaust Issues

by Odelia Sternberg

A first-year Mathematics student who as a child was embarrassed to speak Russian in an Israeli school, a third-year Information Systems Engineer student who fell in love with Judaism through the NATIV course, and an MA student in Bio Medical Engineering who started discovering the greater Jewish community through his participation as an Israeli in Taglit-Birthright are some of the Israeli students who were selected to participate in the prestigious “Phoenix” program.

Following a long selection process which included on-line applications, personal interviews and a social screening workshop, a group of ten students from Hillel at Ben Gurion University were selected to participate in the “Phoenix” year-long program, which among other activities includes a trip to Poland and Lithuania together with 60 Jewish students from the Former Soviet Union.

The International Phoenix Delegation was initiated by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and now operates as a joint program of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, Yad Vashem, The Joint Distribution Committee and The Jewish Agency.

Genesis Philanthropy Group’s mission is to develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, with a particular emphasis on the former Soviet Union, North America, and Israel, where up to three million Russian-speaking Jews reside.

For the participating Israeli Hillel students, this program provides a unique opportunity to deepen their knowledge, understanding, and awareness of Holocaust issues in general, and its practical lessons in particular, fostering student volunteerism with Holocaust Survivors. It also deepens the students’ knowledge, understanding, and awareness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before and after WWII, emphasizing not only that which has been lost but celebrating what emerged and exists today. The program also aims to enhance the relationships and create connections between Russian-speaking Israeli students and members of other Jewish communities abroad, allowing the Russian-speaking participants to feel more connected to the Jewish People, gaining a better understanding of their background and feeling more confident in exploring their current commitment to Jewish life and to the Global Jewish Community. The participants, as a result of their involvement in the program, will become engaged and committed to further exploring their Jewish Identity and will feel empowered to develop their leadership skills through a Jewish lens, so that they will have the tools with which to engage, educate and influence their peers.

Yossie Lepovski, a second-year student of Economics and Accounting says, “The story of the Holocaust is directly related to my family history. In recent years I try to connect and learn more on the subject. That is why, for example, I registered for a Yiddish course in university. I think my mother is very pleased to know that I am participating in the delegation, knowing that I will have the opportunity to meet and connect with young people from the Former Soviet Union and speak Russian.”

Michael Gurvich, a first-year Politics and Government student adds, “I do not know much about the Holocaust, or Judaism for that matter. I am really interested in learning about these issues through different perspectives and am curious to learn what young Jews from other places in the world have to say.”

Prior to the Phoenix Seminar in May 2014, Israeli students will participate in an intensive preparation process which will include vast discussions and learning opportunities in the area of Jewish Peoplehood. These discussions will cover topics such as the meaning of being “A People,” Peoplehood practices in our daily life, program development, social innovation and, of course, a full day of training provided at and by Yad Vashem. During their preparation sessions, the Israeli students will focus on how they connect to their roots and how to build bridges which will bring together their past and present. This preparation will help enhance the overall experience, providing Hillel students with an opportunity to bond, share experiences and engage in meaningful discussions.

At the conclusion of the Phoenix Seminar the student participants will return home and will be asked to create and execute their own initiatives or events as opportunities to engage their peers.

Alon Friedman, Hillel Israel’s CEO shares, “We believe the population of Russian- speaking Israeli students is being underserved in the area of Jewish life and Jewish Peoplehood. This population is unique and often has significantly different interests than other student populations. Hillel Israel realizes that in order to engage a significant amount of these students we must cultivate Russian-speaking Israeli student leaders to create opportunities which will be relevant and engaging to their peers, using an engagement “ripple effect.” For Hillel Israel, being able to take part in the Phoenix initiative through the generosity of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, will serve as a significant boost for our ongoing efforts to engage dozens of Russian-speaking Israelis in Jewish Identity-building programs.”

Odelia Sternberg is Director of Hillel at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.