Among the more than 6,500 people who flocked to Washington, D.C., this week to attend the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were more than 1,000 college students, who on the first day of the gathering, had their own reception on the balcony of the Washington Convention Center.

Picking at a dessert buffet composed of chocolate-covered strawberries, carrot-cake muffins, cookies and coffee, the students – representing some 325 campuses from all of the 50 United States, plus the District of Columbia – milled around a string of booths, including those set up by the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, Hillel, and the historically-Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.

And while the explicit aim of the conference was to jumpstart this year’s grassroots lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel in the corridors of the U.S. Congress, the student reception was also designed to foster a greater connection to the biblical Land of Israel among Jewish students, many of whom have never been to the Holy Land. The Chabad on Campus booth was co-sponsored by American Friends of Lubavitch and staffed by several campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.

“Chabad instills a warmth and enthusiasm for Judaism,” said Miriam Malnik, who graduated from Howard Community College in Maryland with a nursing degree. “AIPAC, [in turn], strengthens students to be advocates for Israel.”

According to Rabbi Yudi Steiner, the new director of the Chabad House serving George Washington University, the event was an opportunity for students to become familiar with what Chabad Houses have to offer on their campuses, particularly in the realm of Israel-related activities. Chabad Houses are among the most active recruiters of free Taglit-birthright israel trips to the Holy Land provided by Mayanot, and Chabad on Campus runs Israelinks, an advanced educational experience for birthright alumni.

“This presented a prime opportunity to engage our people’s future leaders and explore ways in which all segments of Jewish activism can reach out to the uninitiated,” said Steiner, “inspiring them to discover their own heritage.”

For Michael David, an information technology major at California State University Channel Islands, the entire conference left him better prepared to deal with anti-Israel viewpoints at his school.

“I plan to bring Israel awareness and advocacy to my campus,” said David. “I want to get Israel out in front, so people know the truth.”

The conference’s student reception allowed participants to engage with various campus organizations, including Chabad on Campus. (Photo: Yonit Tanenbaum)
The conference’s student reception allowed participants to engage with various campus organizations, including Chabad on Campus. (Photo: Yonit Tanenbaum)

Students Take to the Hill

The Sunday night reception followed general sessions featuring presentations from former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California. Gingrich rattled the foreign policy establishment when he warned of shifting American attitudes that could put Israel in danger, while Harman participated in a panel discussion with former CIA director James Woolsey; Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechustan, on foreign policy challenges facing the U.S., Israel and the rest of the world.

“They each shared their perspectives on what the situation is, and also presented their prospects on future change,” said Saul Zebovitz, a Jewish Studies major at Dartmouth College.

“It’s scary,” reflected Shuli Rosenberg, a political science major at Yeshiva University. “The nuclear threat in Iran is imminent and very real. We, as Americans, need to get involved because [radical Islamists] are against all humanity, not just Israel.”

The students joined their professional counterparts on Tuesday in a mass lobbying drive on Capitol Hill. Among the legislative priorities was passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which calls for economic penalties against the country.

At the reception, Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus, said that many Jewish students have a visceral connection to Israel that can jump start an exploration of their own religious heritage.

Said Gordon: “It’s imperative that students nurture their connections to the Land of Israel.”