The following article was written by Stefan Babjak (left in photo), a former UCF student who has since graduated and has moved to Israel. This article was published on a website that is no longer running, so we saw it fit to keep it live through our blog.
Pro-Israel Students from across Florida gather in Tallahassee for Inaugural Florida Loves Israel Conference
This past weekend, from February 2nd to February 5th, history was made in Tallahassee as the first ever Florida Loves Israel Conference was successfully hosted at FSU. The conference brought together pro-Israel students and student groups from UM, FIU, FSU, UCF, USF, UF and FAU. “This was something that people were talking about for a while, and we decided to just get everyone together and do it” said Noles for Israel President Daniel Ackerman. This is the first time that a forum was hosted for all these different groups to really sit down and learn from each other. “It was really great to see so many students who were working towards the same goals” said Darit Zweibel, an attendee from UCF.
The conference was organized by the group Noles for Israel, which is an Israel advocacy and cultural student organization. The idea of the event was to gather as many pro-Israel groups at campuses from around the state to have a unified pro-Israel voice for Florida. “Israel advocacy is an American issue and is something that is vitally important to security in the United States” said FIU participant Rebecca Sterling.
The partnership between Israel and the US runs very deep and unfortunately must be constantly defended against hate groups, biased media, and a general lack of information on college campuses. Florida has a huge state university system and a large number of pro-Israel groups. Each group and school has its own unique method of advocating for Israel and their own situations on campus. For example The I-Team, a group from Miami, advocates purely through cultural activities and cross-cultural interactions.
Noles for Israel uses a successful method for student organizations. One week they have the serious business meeting, which is more political in nature. The intermediary week is meant to be fun and social. “One week we have Krav Maga training (a form of self-defense used by the Israeli Army) and the next week we have general meetings where we discuss the political situation in Israel and how we can advocate and support Israel here on campus” said Noles for Israel member Katie Lazarus.
The conference started Thursday night with a special guest lecturer, the Israeli Deputy Consul General from Miami, who spoke on the importance of Israel advocacy in America and the biggest challenges facing the US and Israel. Many of the students at FSU were gracious enough to host 30 participants at their places for free; this helped to defer some cost of traveling to Tallahassee. This was a huge help for UM and FIU students, some who had to travel upwards of 9 hours by car.
Early Friday morning, students from around the state came to the capitol building to advocate for Israel to their respective districts congress person. “It was very valuable and a great experience for each of us to get to personally engage with our congress person on the issues important to us” said Alli Jackowitz from UCF.
On Friday night, a huge Shabbat dinner was hosted for over 150 participants. Shabbat is the traditional Jewish day of rest occurring every Friday night to Saturday night. There were four different services, ranging from Orthodox to a simple discussion on what Shabbat means. This was one of the highlights of the conference as Jews and non-Jews came together to share a meal and discuss why Israel was important to them. Between courses, Muslim FSU student Shahir Ramen gave a speech on why he is a cultural supporter of the Jewish state of Israel. “As a Bangladeshi I know how it is for another people to try to take away your identity”. He was referring to the history between Bangladesh and then West Pakistan where Bangladeshi identity was ignored and suppressed by the Pakistanis. He compared this to the constant stream of negativity, racism and false views towards Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Saturday was spent at an area called the FSU Reservation. It’s a large nature preserve centered on a huge lake used by students to canoe, kayak, swim, and relax. Everyone spent time playing catch, frisbee, and taking advantage of the free canoe rentals. The day was filled with breakout sessions ranging from Israeli Army basic training to a session with Israeli film director Khen Shalem, who directed the widely acclaimed short film “On The Road to Tel Aviv”. The film was made during the height of terrorist attacks in Israel during the mid-2000’s where people’s fear of dying in a suicide bombing was ever-present. The day was capped off by a wonderful informative speech from Dr. Rassin Gissin, a top advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He spoke on the nuclear threat from Iran and how the world is coming together to confront it.
Saturday night was the time for everyone who had met and enjoyed serious discussion and networking to let loose and have a good time. Local Tallahassee Jazz/Funk band Shoes and Laces performed at a rented out top floor at local FSU establishment AJ’s Sports Bar.
The weekend ended with a Sunday bagel brunch hosted by the Hillel building and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. All of the organizations that participated were tabling with free goodies and information on what each specifically did. StandWithUs, Hasbara, Zionist Organization of America, Chabad, Hillel, and MASA were all present. These groups range from cultural Jewish student unions to organizations that help students advocate for Israel on their campus. This was just a small contingent of the long list of local, state and national organizations that sponsored the conference. “We literally had organizations calling us the day before the conference asking us if they could still sponsor it” said Noles for Israel Executive Member and the Conference organizer Ron Krudo.
“The best part of the conference was the hospitality of Noles for Israel; we all felt like a part of the FSU family” said UCF participant Shiri Zweibel.
Currently, there is not set location for the next conference but UF students have expressed an interest in hosting it. There was also wide interest in the conference being hosted at UCF by Students for Israel at UCF dues to Orlando’s central location.
Every major University in Florida has some kid of pro-Israel cultural/political/interest group, and even if you’re just curious, make an effort to get out and get involved in one of these groups. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be Jewish to be involved in these groups. In fact, coming into one of these groups from a completely unaffiliated background would add an important layer of diversity to any one of these organizations.