On Israel, youth engagement and how to answer tough questions
Phillip Brodsky, MA/MBA’10, Executive Director, The David Project
It was just after the Second Intifada started that Phillip Brodsky, then 18, returned home to Charlotte, North Carolina after a summer program in Israel.
“Places I had just been to were now in the news for the worst reasons and it was very disturbing. It was very hard for me to go back to high school, back to America, after such an awesome experience there,” remembers Phil.
In 2000 when there was violence in Israel, rallies flared in America. “There were rallies in Charlotte when I got home,” he says. “But for me it was now personal. ‘What about me?' I asked myself. 'What's my rally?'”
“So I organized a pro-Israel rally for the youth of Charlotte, and me and my friends from different youth groups got together about 200 young people from four Hebrew high schools for this hour-long rally,” says Phil.
“It was really cool. Looking back, I think a lot of my leadership values and practices were in play during that time, things that I have since worked to strengthen, including doing something that's engaging, getting people from different Jewish groups together, empowering my generation's voice… It all kind of started there.”
Engagement was Phil's focus going into the Hornstein-Heller dual-degree program, which he completed in 2010.
“For every single class I took,” he says, “I made a conscious effort to focus back on engagement work with young adults. So whenever we had an assignment, that's what I was thinking about.”
But a love of Israel clearly binds his work together. That too grew out of that first trip he made to Israel as a high school student.
Today Phil is the executive director of The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization that works on 42 college campuses in the United States engaging Jewish and non-Jewish students and their communities with Israel.
Phillip Brodsky is shown here with staff from The David Project during a recent staff retreat.
His work includes helping students learn how to talk about what he calls “tough questions” and develop relationships with other student communities and their leadership.
“A lot of young people's connection to Israel is through culture and identity and values. They don't love Israel because there's a conflict there. They want to share their connection to Israel with others so they can connect with people about that which they love. So we teach them how to articulate their ideas.”
This month, The David Project is taking 240 undergraduate students to Israel in a program they call Israel Uncovered. Of these, 190 are non-Jewish campus leaders, friends of the other 50 Jewish students who were selected to join their program. Their Twitter stream shows them arriving in Tel Aviv and eating falafel sandwiches!
In His Own Words: An Interview with Phillip Brodsky
I've always loved Israel. I didn't know it was going to be my professional focus, actually. I was very focused on engagement, getting people together, relationship building, engaging college students and young professionals — that was really my focus going in to Hornstein.
But I've had a lot of experience with Israel and it's always been a very special place for me. It brings me a lot of inspiration and meaning. And it started out when I was little when I went to a Young Judaea camp. They convinced me I had to go to Israel the summer after my senior year of high school.
Which I did… I just didn't go with Young Judaea. I went with Alexander Muss High School in Israel. I went for the summer program in 2000. It was the most amazing summer for me. I was 17. Over two months, we studied the history of Judaism and Israel and Zionism, all the way from the Bible to the modern day. We visited the places in the country we were learning about.
As a group (we were 40 students), we developed tight friendships. It just felt so good.
When I got back to high school after that summer, the Second Intifada had just started. So places I had just been to were now in the news for the worst reasons and it was very disturbing. So it was very hard for me to go back to high school, back to America after such an awesome experience there.
And you know, whenever there's violence in Israel, there's always rallies in America. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and there were rallies for Israel there. But I felt like, what about me? What's my rally?
So I organized a pro-Israel rally for the youth of Charlotte, and me and my friends from different youth groups got together about 200 young people from four Hebrew high schools for this hour-long rally.
It was really cool. Looking back, I think a lot of my leadership values and practices were in play during that time, things that I have since worked to strengthen, including doing something that's engaging, getting people from different Jewish groups together, empowering my generation's voice… all kind of started there.
My dad went to temple every Saturday and my mom was a Jewish preschool teacher, and then when I was in high school, she ran the Jewish Hebrew High School, which was once a week. Today she is the campaign director at the Charlotte Jewish Federation. So we were very involved with the synagogue (the Conservative synagogue) and the Jewish Community Center in Charlotte. I was on the Jewish JCC basketball team and I worked at the JCC summer camp.
In Charlotte, there are two big synagogues, a big Reform synagogue and a Conservative one. There's a Chabad Lubavitch. Both synagogues, the JCC and the summer camp are all on one property called Shalom Park with the Lubavitch right behind it. It's nice that even though people might go to different temples, we all come to the same place, to Shalom Park. So it feels big.
Well, engagement is what I do at The David Project.
I look at it like this. Judaism and Israel both have so much to offer Jews, way more than maybe what we learned in Hebrew school about the “rules.” There's so much meaning and philosophy and values within Judaism. I think young Jews deserve the opportunity to find a connection point that will turn them on, that will excite them, so it can fulfill their lives more in some way, if possible.
I learned this when I worked for AEPi (Alpha Epsilon Pi). When I worked there, I learned that we can't just sit around and hope that people are going to come to our events, or hope that somebody's going to walk into a synagogue, or hope that somebody will sign up for Birthright.
We have to do the hard work of putting ourselves out there and extending our hand and going to meet people where they're at. And so for me, that's what engagement's about, that we find opportunities to meet people and then we go and do it. I think a lot of people are not sitting around waiting for Judaism to come to them. They're busy running their own lives. They probably don't even feel like anything's missing.
Judaism's pretty cool. It's a great lens to use to look at the world if you've had the opportunity to learn how to access it. And I think a lot of people probably haven't.
That's really my engagement strategy, specifically with Israel, and especially since there's so much divisiveness, misinformation, propaganda and conflict surrounding it. That's a lot of incentive to never engage with Israel. Why would somebody want to? Israel is often presented in such a divisive black-and-white way here in America, especially on college campuses where it's either pro- or anti-, good or bad.
I don't blame students for getting turned off. I'm not talking only about Jewish students. I'm talking about any typical student. That's not how students want to engage with something, especially when we're in college where we're focusing on learning and growing. To have to pick a side is not the way it works.
So we're trying to engage people with the real Israel, the complex, complicated, nuanced, amazing place that Israel is, and show that it's a place that anybody can connect to. We're trying to change the conversation so that students feel like they can participate in it and they do have something they can say about it.
My experience with anti-Semitism is anecdotal. What I heard was that in the last school year, AEPi, which has about 140 chapters just in the United States, had 14 swastikas drawn or painted on their fraternity houses in locations all over the country. That's pretty damning. But when a swastika is discovered on campus, everybody denounces it. Even anti-Israel groups denounce swastikas.
Now we're also starting to see instances where Jewish students are being asked to abstain from voting in school affairs because of a “Jewish agenda” or bias.
It's not a massive trend but it's worrying. Those same students who are accusing the Jewish student of being biased would probably denounce the swastika. I don't think they realize that what they're saying is anti-Semitic, but it is. It's just like telling a student from another community that they will be excluded from voting because of their bias.
So there's this gray area which is a little confusing for students.
I do think that if you're a Jewish student who loves Israel and Judaism, there's probably never been a better time to be on campus. Hillel is larger and cooler and more interesting than ever. There's The David Project and many other Israel advocacy organizations.
You can wear your cool Jewish T-shirt on campus without a problem. Nobody's getting stoned. But there are comments… There's a recent article by Miriam Pollock in Tower Magazine about the numerous incidents of anti-Semitic posts through Yik Yak, a social media smartphone app that lets people post anonymously.
There is this negativity out there. My worry is that if you're a student on campus, you're going to know that there's negativity surrounding Israel. And you're probably not going to want to get involved with it.
At The David Project, we train our students how to engage their peers from outside of the Jewish community around topics about Israel.
We have a session that we run called Tough Questions. These are tough questions that our students face when, for example, they approach the president of the black student union or leaders of different religious communities or college Dems or Republicans and they sit down together. They're not going to throw out some awful disgusting allegations when they first meet. What they're going to say is “I don't want to meet with you because we don't do anything political. If I meet with you, we have to meet with the other side. Or our group doesn't want to take a stand.”
A lot of young people's connection to Israel is through culture and identity and values. They don't love Israel because there's a conflict there. They want to share their connection to Israel with others so they can connect with people about that which they love.
So we teach them how to articulate their ideas. In terms of politics, the conversations happening on campus are not very in-depth. There's no interesting debate about where the border should be, or what to do about a specific settlement, or about Orthodox conscription into the army, or about how to treat Israeli Arabs or about how to improve economic disparity in the country.
The conversation on college campuses is black-and-white: Israel is bad or Israel is good. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is demonizing Israel's government and right to exist so nobody's really having thoughtful conversations. I think some students and leaders of the BDS movement would not agree with what I'm saying. But this black-and-white approach is alienating people.
So if we're not able to engage college students in a more meaningful way on topics about Israel in an interesting way that will encourage them to open up a little bit and learn about Israel, what they're going to come away with is nothing. They'll not know much about Israel because there was this negative cloud around the conversation and they chose to stay away from that.
Learn more about how to answer tough questions and keep the conversation going with resources from The David Project's Israel Discussion Guides.
The David project is active on 42 campuses across the country. Each campus has an outreach team of five students on average. Each outreach team works on an outreach plan. Then we teach students about engagement and how to create conversations amongst Jewish students and other student communities. Students come from all across the country to train for outreach at our Summer Conference in Boston.
We also do training on the ground. So the outreach team meets every other week or so and we train them. First we teach them how to talk about Israel. Then we train them on personal narrative or how to reference personal experience while articulating the reasons for caring about Israel and Israel advocacy.
We teach them how to be active listeners, how, in the course of having a conversation with somebody who isn't really listening, to get them to open up to you and find points of connection and common ground. These are the techniques of relationship building.
We have this tough questions exercise where we let students tell us what the questions are that they get when they're out in the field doing relationship building. They tell us the questions they are asked and then we sit together and talk through how we'd answer that question in a way that will keep the conversation going and give us the best chance to really get to know people.
We know going in that there will be tough questions that our students will have to answer, and that it's not our students' fault but they have strikes against them as Israel advocates because of the environment on campus and the way that the pro-Israel and anti-Israel movement has created this black-and-white debate.
And then our students reach out to their peers from other groups. They get to know them, have conversations, look for connection points, try to get involved with each other's work. We help our students organize programs that are based on the interests of the Israel community as well as the communities they're looking to engage. It's a symbiotic give-and-take relationship.
During the winter, we bring one Israel advocate from each of our 42 campuses to Israel with us, and that person invites two, three, or four non-Jewish students to come with her to Israel. Last year we brought, from 32 campuses, 108 students altogether: 32 Israel advocates and 76 campus leaders from other organizations.
This year, thanks to special new grants we received from some of our partners here in Boston and other foundations, we are going to bring a total of 240 students to Israel. Of these, 190 are non-Jewish campus leaders — undergraduate students — from communities on campus.
Our staff works extremely hard to meet these high recruitment numbers.
The David Project has been through a whirlwind of change over the past few years. This is my sixth year with the organization. When I started we were really spread out. We had a high school department, a gap year program, an office in New York. Now we're all based in Boston and we're only working on college campuses. This is the only work that we're doing. It's been a lot of hard and painful work to change the organization but it's been extremely impactful.
We made these changes to better position ourselves and direct the growth of this program that we're doing now. We now have eight campus coordinators who are all based in Boston. They travel constantly. And they each work with about five or so campuses in different parts of the country. This is the largest campus team we've ever had.
There's this great book by Daniel Gordis that came out a couple years ago called “Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.”
Gordis's argument was Israel has a lot of challenges, which we all know, but the biggest one is that we as a Jewish people, including Israelis, need to be able to articulate “why,” that is, what's the point of having this Jewish country.
The Zionist founders had such amazing writing and debate about their visions of what the country should be, could be, and it wasn't just “let's get all the Jews together so we can have a country like everybody else.” Their thinking was we want a country so that we can have more opportunity for self-determination.
So the question is, what are we going to do with that? Gordis was basically arguing that if we're able to answer that question, we will ensure our survival. It's a beautiful book.
I think that's the single toughest question. It's easy to criticize Israel. As an American, you may not like what the government is doing so it's easy to ignore it altogether and have nothing to do with Israel. The challenge is to understand that we have a connection to Israel and to the Jewish people as a whole, and to figure out why that's important to us.
I mean, why do we care about that? I think that being able to articulate that is the answer to most questions.
When we're in Israel with The David Project, we meet with Forsan Hussein. He's an Israeli Arab and Brandeis alum from 2000. Forsan says the lens through which he answers this tough question is love for the Jewish values that Israel is based on. He wants Israel to live up to those values. I think that's a great vision to have as an Israel advocate: somebody who cares about Israel because we love the vision its founders had for Israel and the values its based on; we're proud of what it's become, but we know that it has a long way still to go.
As advocates for Israel, we want to help it achieve its values. We can articulate our reasoning by explaining that Israel's vitality is important to us and its values are important to us. We want to help Israel live up to those values and overcome the challenges it faces, both internally and externally.
I think that's something we can get behind. But we have to be able to say why, at its core, it's important. It's a deep question for Jews because we have to understand our connection to Judaism and Jewish people as well.
Watch an interview with Forsan Hussein: Making Connections Across Cultures.
The David Project trips to Israel include meetings with artists, reporters, nonprofit leaders, musicians and representatives from different minority groups. We visit different parts of the country. We hear from Jews and Christians and Muslims.
How Jews and Arabs think about Israeli society and the values that are being expressed and lived is for me what's really exciting and interesting. Those values and the way they play out in society are what informs the government and policy and everything else. For me, that's the really interesting stuff. That's what I want to understand.
You know, Israel is not monolithic. Nothing about Israel's monolithic. Just look at how many political parties there are there. It's very diverse.
Here in America, I think most of the conversation treats Israel as this very monolithic entity. In the average person's mind, Israel is probably very religious, very militaristic, has a lot of concrete and is very ugly.
But we know that's not the case at all.
My trips to Israel with the Hornstein Program were highly influential for me. I was on the student planning committee each year. David Mendelsson was our educational tour guide. He was amazing. I have remembered a lot of what he taught us about the field, and the way to talk to people. And also how to have fun!
I bumped into him once a while back when I was running my trip for The David Project and I pulled him aside to tell him how much I enjoyed his instruction, what I was doing now and how much I remembered of what he had taught me.
The David Project trips and Hornstein trips are similar in that they are educational seminars. They're not Birthright, nor just a tour: they're educational. So we share similar styles of speakers and sites that we visit. There's overlap, for sure.
I loved Professor Amy Sales. I thought she was a genius, especially in the way she thought about things. And I loved the way she structured her class, which allowed us to take what we were interested in and learn about that, while also learning about the concepts of Jewish identity and Jewish community.
And I remember Professor Joe Reimer did a leadership seminar for us my first semester. That was probably the most influential class of all of them. Each week he would invite a different Jewish community leader and we would interview them. Somebody would prep to introduce them and then we'd ask that person questions. Joe was really careful to select people who were change agents, people who had done something new or had changed things around.
That class was amazing. I remember we had Aliza Kline of Mayyim Hayyim. We had Ed Case from InterfaithFamily. We had somebody from the Joint Distribution Committee.
And then, for the very last class, it was just Joe. He talked for a long time about Jewish leadership and what it meant. He talked about King David and the story of him and Bathsheba and the difficulties and complexities of leadership. He was able to tell this story in such a way that it brought to life the story of King David in such a relevant way. I don't think I'll ever forget it. It was one of the most impactful lectures I've ever heard.
Bradley Solmsen was also great. I worked closely with him on my TCP.
I particularly liked how I got to interact with real organizations while at Hornstein. For every single class I took, I made a conscious effort to focus back on engagement work with young adults. So whenever we had an assignment, that's what I was thinking about.
I came to Brandeis because of the Hornstein-Heller dual-degree program. That's what brought me there. I met with Professor Jonathan Sarna and some of the other professors and I felt like this was a great place for me.
This interview with Phillip Brodsky was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, December 2015. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to Phillip Brodsky and the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.