Answering the call: Jerusalem Online U as a supplementary education for college students and beyond

Posted on September 13, 2012 by

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"Israel Inside/Out" is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

The Problem: anti-Semitism on American university campuses

In order to make life a little simpler and to make sense of a chaotic world, humans subconsciously overlook pressing problems, preventing themselves from seeing the harsh reality in front of them and focusing on a delusional form of safety instead. We can no longer ignore the growing anti-Semitism on American university campuses; the Jewish community needs to relentlessly combat this evil in the hopes of forming a stronger, more resilient generation.

Jeff Rubin, Associate Vice President for Communications at Hillel, explains, “While we take all incidents seriously, most reported ‘anti-Semitic’ occurrences may be simple vandalism, inter-personal hostility, or simple ignorance of symbols that are offensive to Jews.”

However enticing such a trivial dismissal of anti-Semitism might be, the Anti-Defamation League reported “260 anti-Semitic acts on college campuses across the United States and 5,126 communitywide” from 2004-2007 alone. The fact of the matter remains: many Americans are fundamentally unaware of or unconcerned with anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses. Many of those who fail to acknowledge anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses often argue that anti-Israel sentiments are being confused for anti-Semitism. They contend that anti-Israel sentiments are widespread, but maintain that anti-Semitism remains relatively low.

The danger with this mentality is that the rationally acceptable, politically framed anti-Israel attitudes quickly descend into blatant anti-Semitism. For example, in February 2005, a Palestinian club (a political organization) from a New York-area college posted a sign showing the Star of David (a religious symbol) morphing into a swastika, and reading: “History Repeats: Look What Hitler Taught Some of His Victims.”

Only a fuzzy, easily erasable line separates critics from hatred of the Jews and hatred of Israel. In terms of graphical representation, an Israeli flag equated to a swastika constitutes nonsensical slander, but is not openly accepted anti-Semitism; at its worst it is covert anti-Semitism hiding under the guise of a political issue. On the other hand, upon removing the blue lines and frame from the flag, the remaining Magen David shown melting into a swastika represents unarguable anti-Semitism.

Semantics, then, separate socially acceptable forms of criticism from globally recognized hate crimes. The reality is that Israel is a Jewish state, and therefore, much of its criticism is infused with anti-Semitism.

Solution: educate ourselves

As young Jews at one of the top universities in the United States, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about contemporary issues facing the Jewish community, and serve as liaisons between the Jewish people and the rest of the world. Far more ignorance and apathy surrounds Israel, Jews, and the Middle East conflict in general than we are comfortable admitting, and this ignorance and apathy is definitely not limited to non-Jews. A video produced by StandWithUs (an international organization dedicated to bringing peace to the Middle East by educating about Israel and the misinformation that often surrounds the Middle East conflict) that polled UCLA students’ knowledge about Israel proves this disheartening reality. They discovered that besides being woefully unaware that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East, many embarrassingly mistook the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Hamas for the Mediterranean dip humus.

In order to fill in the gap and provide the necessary educational supplement for Jewish college students, in 2009 Rabbi Raphael Shore founded JerusalemOnlineU.com, an “online portal for Jewish distance learning with a vision to transform Jewish and Israel education for the 21st century.” They seek “to inspire, unify, and activate people of all ages as passionate supporters of Israel and the Jewish people.” JOU offers four online multimedia courses, to be completed at the student’s leisure, with a range of high school to college to adult level material. The options are: Positive Psych and Judaism; Cinema: the Jewish Lens; Israel Inside/Out; and Judaism 101.

Feedback: how JOU impacted students

JOU’s West Coast Director Jessica Felber remembers her time as a student at UC Berkeley: “I spent about 60% of my day on my laptop, and I know that is not uncommon! I loved the idea of being able to learn more about Judaism and Israel in a fun and engaging way without having to go anywhere. I could take a break from Facebook or writing a paper to watch a cool and funny class about love, success, or pleasure and be paid $100 for it! I realized that this is the best way for college students to learn about their heritage. If I gained so much from these courses, I knew other college students would as well, so why not share the wealth?”

"Israel Inside/Out" is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

“Israel Inside/Out” is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

Even for students who consider themselves moderately well-versed in Jewish history, culture, or politics, Zach Garber from the University of Texas Austin believes the classes still hold striking relevance. He states, “As someone already heavily involved in Israel advocacy on my campus, I benefitted greatly from Israel Inside/Out, which reinforced many of the concepts and facts I knew prior to taking the course, and expanded my vocabulary and knowledge base for use in pro-Israel endeavors.”

"Cinema: The Jewish Lens" is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

Each course covers a different area of interest from a Jewish perspective and educates students about contemporary political issues, which helps them incorporate Jewish principles and practices in their everyday lives. The instructors represent a prestigious slice of Jewish academic pie, including such notables as former Harvard Professor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis, and former UN Ambassador Dore Gold.

"Positive Psych and Judaism" is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

“Having worked for many Jewish and Israel organizations,” Felber notes, “I know what it means to be passionate about one’s work. But I never expected to find the dedication and love for a mission that I found within people at JOU. Here is a typical example of the kind of people I work with. JOU President, Amy Holtz, owned and operated 25 “Party City” stores in Pennsylvania and she was by all means very successful. After she began learning more about her heritage, she decided she wanted more out of life than a large bank account — so she sold all of her stores and took her business talents to the non-profit world, where she has since built up JOU to incredible measures. The people who work at JOU have grabbed at the opportunity to dedicate their lives to a cause much larger than themselves and though it was not what I was expecting, I must admit, it is extremely contagious!”

Besides the extraordinary caliber of administrators and teachers, JOU offers an optional stipend for college students attending an accredited university or college, hoping to build a more confident Jewish presence on campuses across the United States.
"Judaism 101" is one of the four courses JOU offers to college students.

Tyrone Pike from the University of Miami had the following to say of his experience taking the Judaism 101 class: “It was very inspirational and enjoyable. The reason it took me so long to complete it was due to taking notes and analyzing the content and ideas. Some of the ideas were very beautiful and others showed the reality that we still have a long way to go before peace will be present. Hopefully in the future, people will appreciate the love and devotion we have to G-d and join us in unity, instead of attacking us. Until that time, I will try to be one of the many who are a ‘light unto the nations.’”

Reflecting on her connection to JOU and its mission to provide Jewish students the opportunity to learn more about themselves in their heritage at their own pace, Felber revealed: “I have dedicated my life to Israel and the Jewish People because I see it as an essential component of who I am. I feel an unbreakable connection with every Jew and an undying love for the Land of Israel. I am a Jew before I am anything else. A great rabbi once said to me, ‘First figure out what you’re willing to die for, then live for it.’ I repeat that to myself every day.”

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*To learn more about how to enroll, contact the author at tnath@media.ucla.edu and/or visit JOU at JerusalemOnlineU.com.*

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