When I participated in activities organized by Hillel, the world's largest Jewish campus organization, in college in New York, I was a lonely undergrad from Israel, trying to make friends in the Big Apple.
In the black-and-white terminology of Israel, I am considered "secular," so joining a synagogue was not an option.
Yet Hillel, with its pluralistic approach and variety of activities, was one.
Years later, while driving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the capital of Israeli cynicism, I wondered what would bring an Israeli university student to join Hillel, where relationships are easily established by asking the two ultimate questions Israelis use to relate to each other: "Where are you from?" and "Where did you serve in the army?"
It is enough to say you are from Ramat Gan or served as a paratrooper to set off a stream of "Do you know so and so?"
In most instances, a common acquaintance will be identified easily, and you've made a new friend. It's six degrees of separation, Israeli style.
So what brings young men and women to join an organization, if not the need to socialize?
Moreover, what would make young Israelis identify with the mission statement: "maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews."
Apparently not. In a way, Israel makes Judaism redundant. Those who search for a spiritual dimension find that it in most cases, in Eastern religions, some become religious. For the majority, "Jewishness" is expressed in an annual visit to the synagogue on Yom Kippur or their children's Hanukkah play.
Not for some youngsters.
I met Nir, an engineering student from Tel Aviv University, Sagiv, a former yeshiva student, Meital, an arts student at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, Bat-El, a Jewish education major at Hebrew University's prestigious "Revivim" program, and their friends, at a meeting to prepare for a trip to Hillel's 2005 Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly.
The assembly is a six-day conference where more than 300 Jewish and Hillel student leaders from around the world participate in sessions, seminars and various social activities aimed at enhancing their leadership skills and knowledge of Judaism and sharing their experience of program developments and network.
Meital, Nir and Sagiv are a part of a 13-member Israeli delegation to the assembly. They will join young Jewish leaders from the Former Soviet Union, Latin America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the U.K., U.S. and Europe. I met them as they were discussing leadership, Judaism and their role as representatives of Israel during this crucial time.
Several wondered about Internet connections. They just have to keep in touch with the flow of news we all anticipate in the coming weeks.
When asked, "Why Hillel?" the most common answer was Hillel's important role in promoting pluralism. Israel should not be a melting pot; respect should be given to all communities in Israeli society.
Students with various religious affiliations, political opinions and ethnic backgrounds are given tools to express rich tradition, design programs and activities that will enhance their abilities and empower them.
Hillel is the place where students sit in "hevruta" (paired learning session), with students from the Kotel Yeshiva in one room, and the Lesbian-Gay forum is in the next. It is the place where Russian immigrants are given the tools and support to design and implement communal and self-growth programs, and where the Ethiopian community is celebrated in a two-day "Et Yofia" ("her beauty") program.
They discussed their need to connect to their Jewish roots without dealing with stereotypes of "secular" vs. "religious" and about their need to construct a Jewish identity as an integral part of their self-identity.
Sagiv said that as Israelis, "we are in a constant state of mental overload that prevents dealing with 'leisurely' topics like Jewish identity."
A former Yeshiva student, membership at Hillel proved to him that: "there are ways of connecting Kodesh (the sacred) and Chol (the secular)."
They proudly spoke about "tzedek" (justice) and talked about the various initiatives they are involved in, actually finding time for social activism between study and work. Programs like "Halas" (slang for "enough"), where students are empowered to initiate and implement programs promoting social equality, and work to minimize the gaps between layers of society, the LGBT club to advance gay and lesbian rights, and the Green Initiative, involved in environmental issues.
They are headed to Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, far from the Gaza Strip and the anxiety over the days to come. They will take with them a flashlight and an extra pair of comfortable shoes, but they also take with them the motto "for us to learn, for us to give" and the understanding that all eyes will be on them.