On the ground in Israel, helping to connect the dots for American college students
Andrew Weiss, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, at the grounds of Auschwitz on a trip to Poland in April 2024.
Credit: Courtesy.

Jeff Seidel has worked for more than 40 years in Jerusalem, helping link young Jews to their heritage and identity, and now, answering crucial questions amid a surge of antisemitism.

By Deborah Fineblum
June 7, 2024

After four decades of connecting English-speaking college students in Israel with their heritage, including matching them up with Israeli families for more than 200,000 Shabbat and holiday meals,­ Jeff Seidel’s trademark saddle shoes may be a tad worn.

But the 66-year-old has lost none of his passion for pulling the next generation of the Jewish people up by its shoelaces. He says he has worked with as many as 150,000 young people over the years, talking about Jewish identity and helping them link to their heritage.

Still, the ones who find him now by the Western Wall or in his hole-in-the-wall office in Jerusalem’s Old City (just look for the giant saddle-shoe sign above the door, Jeff Seidel’s Jewish Student Centers) tend to have more painful questions than in the past:

“Should I wear my kippah or my Jewish star necklace on campus?”

“Is it safe to attend Shabbat dinner at our Hillel or Chabad House?”

“How do I talk about the Israel Defense Forces and its operation in Gaza?”

And, most difficult of all: “What do I say to my roommate when she tells me my people are baby killers with no right to the land?”

These are just some of the many questions of this young generation of Jews, who have had to grapple with serious new issues of identity since Oct. 7, confronting hate on their campuses that no other generation has had to face.

American Jewish students visit Israeli military bases during the war with Hamas in Gaza in the spring of 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

“They’re saying they don’t feel safe or protected by their schools—that they’re uncomfortable walking to class or the library, not knowing when someone’s going to jump out and harass them,” says Seidel. “Or when their professor’s going to go off on Israel in class.”

While the number of American young adults visiting and studying in Israel is sharply down right now, with many programs closed or minimized since Oct. 7, Seidel says those who are coming typically arrive with their heads filled with anti-Israel propaganda.

“I explain how most of what they’ve heard from their friends and professors and on the news is a lie,” Seidel says with a weary sigh.

“I want to make sure they understand what’s really going on here—that IDF soldiers are trained to do everything possible to protect civilian life and that Israel is providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, not blocking it,” he adds.

Andrew Weiss, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, at the grounds of Auschwitz on a trip to Poland in April 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

‘Everything seen and heard about hate is true’

In addition to continuing to send them to Israeli homes for Shabbat dinner and holiday meals (“a chance to hear what it’s really like to live here,” he says), Seidel is taking his young adults along on the barbecues he serves to soldiers eight times a month—dishing out 1,000 servings of burgers, chicken, steak and hot dogs at army bases across Israel.

American Jewish students visit Israeli military bases during the war with Hamas in Gaza in the spring of 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

“So many of the soldiers are coming straight out of Gaza, and you can see it in their eyes,” says Ronit Harari, who met Seidel when she arrived in Israel to volunteer back in February and began accompanying him on barbecues soon thereafter.

“Being with them is like giving them an earnest hug; the fact that Am Yisrael is behind them means everything,” adds Harari, a 28-year-old teacher from Mexico City now working towards aliyah.

“We’re connecting the dots between the American young people and their cousins in the IDF,” says Seidel. “The Americans can tell their friends back home they didn’t just hear about these Jewish heroes, they met them. And it makes the soldiers happy that Jews their own age care enough to come on base to be with them.”

He also brings young adults from abroad to visit wounded soldiers in recovery at area hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

American Jewish students visit wounded Israeli soldiers in hospitals during the war with Hamas in Gaza in the spring of 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

Also along on a recent barbecue was a business student hoping that his Columbia University degree will open doors to a career in investment banking. “I couldn’t turn down a chance to be at Columbia, a top school on my way to a top job in my field,” he says (he asked that he not be named in this story due to possible repercussions when he returns to school this fall).

Another perk of being at the Ivy League school in New York City would be “getting more in touch with my Judaism and just being around Jews.”

Or so he thought. It didn’t take long to see the antisemitism on campus, clearly exacerbated after Oct. 7. “Everything you’ve seen and heard about the hate is true,” he says. “But what you don’t see is that with all this screaming for intifada, the school never said they won’t tolerate antisemitism until the media started covering the encampment.” And, since at 25 he’s older than his peers—a stint in the Marines delayed college—“I have pretty thick skin, but it was still shocking.”

Despite the falling off of American students coming to Israel (a situation that’s expected to improve once the war ends), Seidel’s Poland trips for Americans studying in Europe are going strong.

Jeff Seidel (left) and Andrew Weiss, Andrew Weiss, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, at the grounds of Auschwitz on a trip to Poland in April 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

Andrew Weiss, a rising senior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who spent the fall semester on a campus riddled with angry anti-Israel protesters, went on that trip in April.

And so, what the Detroit native saw before and during Seidel’s Poland trip hit home. “From my campus to the site of the Nova festival and then to the horror of the camps, it has put new value on the words ‘Never again is now,’” he explains. “Because the antisemitism on campus and Nova aren’t 1943; they’re now. The problem is that students, not knowing history, don’t realize that ‘From the river to the sea’ calls for the mass murder of Israelis.”

‘I had no choice, I had to leave’

Before Margaux Jubin traveled to Israel and met Seidel, she had been studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston until life on campus sent her packing to Israel with plans to transfer to a school there.

As of last month, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine “suddenly blew up to 7,000 followers in a school of 5,000, including agitators,” says the California native. She was told by the editor of the school paper that she couldn’t use the word “terrorist” in a column because of its “racist connotation.” After spring break, when three of her closest friends stopped talking to her, “it got pretty lonely,” she relates.

A Jewish professor then helped students form Jews Against Zionism (JAZ), which is pushing to close down the school’s Hillel (“so Jewish students won’t have any safe place left,” laments Jubin). After the first tent of the encampment was erected outside her dorm, Jubin—wearing her Star of David and “Bring Them Home” tag—says she was told by an outside agitator that “as someone who believes Israel has a right to exist in peace, I was complicit in genocide, and that as a Zionist, I didn’t belong there.”

But the proverbial straw fell in the wee hours after the Passover seder, when approaching her dorm, she found the entrance blocked by dozens of people wearing masks and keffiyehs until she yelled, and they let her pass. It saddened me, but I had no choice,” she says. “I had to leave.”

Margaux Jubin covering a pro-Palestinian demonstration on Harvard Bridge at Harvard University in the spring of 2024. Credit: Courtesy.

It’s a tough decision but, like the Columbia business student, some of Seidel’s young friends are planning on going back to their troubled campuses while others like Jubin are not.

Still, the business student says he’s pretty sure that he won’t be wearing a kippah at Columbia next year. “It’s best to stay anonymous there, especially in a competitive job market where being an activist can get your internship offer rescinded,” he notes.

As for Weiss, “will I have the courage to wear the chai around my neck when I’m back at Michigan? I hope so, but I honestly don’t know.”

While Seidel understands the nuances of these issues, he makes it a point to say that he is careful with his advice, telling them, “‘I’m not in your shoes, I’m not on your campus, and I know you just want to get an education and live your life.’”

But there is one thing he does emphasize: “You’re one of the lucky ones who gets to come here; most Jewish students won’t ever see the real Israel—just the hate for this tiny country and the Jewish people. So, when you’re back on campus, remember who you are.”

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