It is nearly unbelievable that this academic year is now at an end. As we approach finals, we want to reflect on what Illini Public Affairs Committee has been up to this year, and set a course for where we are headed as an organization.
Let us first share our own stories.
The two of us are often asked: “So what happens when you graduate this year?” We just smile and let whoever it is know that we are both finishing our second years on campus.
So, how did two sophomores become IlliniPAC co-Presidents?
Hayley’s journey here started in high school. One of her best friends invited her to a high school Israel Club meeting on the promise of there being cookies. She went for the cookies, but quickly found something kept pulling her back to those meetings. So she kept going back week after week, and slowly got hooked. Through learning so much about the country of Israel, it’s people, it’s culture – she began to feel connected.
As high school went on, Hayley got more involved at school, in youth group, and then started to become introduced to the wider world of Israel Advocacy when she started sharing her writing online. She had gone to an AIPAC High School summit, and was connected to the IlliniPAC cadre here the summer before her freshman year. She then went to an IlliniPAC info session, started going to meetings, and met the rest of the group.
Elan’s story is a little different. In high school, he was never that involved in Israel activism. On the very last day of classes, three clueless and confused college students came to tell Elan’s graduating class about what Israel-on-campus is like, but they knew very little. That was all Elan’s high school did to prepare him to face anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hostilities on campus.
Elan decided that he needed to be informed. He felt responsible to stand up for the Jewish community. And then, there he was during the first week of school, an eager freshmen fresh off quad day, where he was first introduced to IlliniPAC. A week later, Elan was sitting in IlliniPAC Info Night in Gregory Hall, watching these amazing few students, wearing matching “Bad Iran Deal” t-shirts, command the room. They began to tell us the audience all about our club, but Elan was not listening. He was already hooked.
The two of us joined Cadre (IlliniPAC’s Executive Board) in Fall 2015 and quickly became very involved. In Fall 2016, then-President Shani Benezra announced that she was leaving to study abroad in Israel, and a new President… or Presidents as it were… would be needed for the spring semester. We agreed to take on the role, but only if we could do it together.
The rest, you all know.
So what is Illini Public Affairs Committee? According to the “About Section” on our website: IlliniPAC is a bipartisan, pro-Israel student organization at the University of Illinois dedicated to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, since 1984.
But really, IlliniPAC is a family.
Whether it is staying up texting until 4:00am, and then again the next night, and then the night after that… or studying at Grainger Library all night but really just doing Israel work, and then again the next night, and then the night after that… somehow we get it all done. Together, we are learning not just how to be better Israel activists, but how to be better friends, and how to survive as college students. The people in our IlliniPAC family are the ones by our side through every step of the journey. Thank you.
Meanwhile, we have managed to build this incredible network of friends on campus. We have been able to learn from the most capable student leaders, how you all see this campus, what matters most to you, and then share our messages with you all. Students of all political persuasions, religious affiliations, all courses of study have come together to form this pro-Israel coalition. This is because of the hard work of IlliniPAC.
But we did not get here overnight. We have been holding meetings, inviting speakers to campus, teaching students how to connect to their members of congress, tabling on the quad, producing articles and videos along with hundreds of social media posts, holding social gathering, and so much more all year long. It really is remarkable to realize all the different ways we each found our connection to the State of Israel – be it appreciating Start Up technology, taking pride in shared democratic values, recognizing agricultural innovation, or marveling at this place for all faiths to call home.
How has IlliniPAC pulled this all off? It has been possible with amazing people, and with a very full schedule of events. Let us reflect on just how much we accomplished together this past year.
Fall 2016 began when we hit the campaign trail with Champaign’s Congressman Rodney Davis. We built such a strong relationship with the Congressman through making phone calls and driving around to deliver signs that we were invited to walk with him in the homecoming parade. He then invited us to join the congressional tailgate the next morning. This relationship only grew, and now the Congressman looks to us students for advice on important Israel-related issues.
One of the most impactful experiences we went through as an organization this year was addressing the passing of Shimon Peres – a founding father of Israel who became a visionary of peace. We mourned his passing, made a video tribute to his legacy, and set our sights on following his example in all of our work on campus.
We made some of our closest friends this fall when we were invited to join the Halloweekend Political Barn Dance. Wearing our flannel shirts in a barn with members of Model United Nations, Illini Democrats, Illini Republicans, countless student senators and so many more was a great reminder that while we may not agree on politics – we are all students – we are all Illini.
Next, we stood with pride on the quad for National Coming Out Day! We did this to stand with the LGBTQIA+ community, and to be more involved in campus-wide issues. That is one of the reason we were nominated for an award by the World Union of Jewish Students.
When Veterans Day came, we wanted to do something special. We reached out to American and Israeli troops and had them share their experiences defending each country separately, but also sharing their stories of joint training – showing just another way our two nations work together.
We also brought Congressman Rodney Davis back to campus to meet with Student Senators and other student leaders and find even more ways to connect each of you to Israel.
During Thanksgiving break, we were devastated by the news of fires spreading all across Israel. We could not stand idly by. So we joined with a coalition on campus to raise funds to send to Israeli fire stations, providing critical supplies.
We were thrilled to invite Illinois’ Professor Cary Nelson to share his knowledge on the Middle East and fighting the delegitimization of Israel. The resources amongst faculty on this campus and in the surrounding areas are truly amazing.
Only a few weeks later, we gathered with the brothers of AEPi and baked hundreds of cupcakes. IlliniPAC stood on the quad with a giant map of the world to highlighting all of the nations to which Israel provides humanitarian aid. We gave away those cupcakes and none were left! Apparently, college students love free food.
Over winter break we sent some of our members to AIPAC’s Saban Leadership Summit. We also sent student leaders this year to AIPAC’s Progressive Student Retreat, African American Student Retreat, and Latino Student Retreat. The pro-Israel coalition on campus is strong and diverse.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we called attention to an amazing project called I am Your Protector. The project recognizes Muslim individuals who helped rescue Jews during World War II. We wanted to highlight that coexistence is truly possible when people recognize the humanity in each other.
And then winter break came, and nearly 50 Illini flew to Israel to connect to the land we talk about so much. We had endless classic IlliniPAC run-ins and meet ups, and it was the perfect break from school that we all needed.
Returning from break, the two of us officially assumed our roles as heads of IlliniPAC.
We felt that following the divisive presidential election, our campus needed to show some love. As a student organization with a large campus presence, we felt a responsibility to begin talking more about unity and how to better recognize every student unique on campus. That is why we tabled on the quad giving away free hugs, free food, and having students write positive messages on a huge board.
Our next highlight was joining with Illini Hillel to welcome to campus Itay Milner, Israel’s Deputy Consul General to the Midwest. We discussed how to strengthen ties between our University and Israel, through joint research programs and study abroad. Next, we joined with Illini Chabad for “Jewnity Shabbat” featuring former IDF soldier Leibel Mangel.
It was then time for our own elections on campus. IlliniPAC hosted the student body presidential candidates in a community forum where we discussed Israel and campus issues.
While that was going on, the United Illini for a United Campus campaign was formed. We joined with them, to help spread messages of unity and to oppose the divisive divestment referendum that had been proposed. IlliniPAC members stepped up to show just how much the relationships we form matter.
We did not shy away from answering the difficult questions about our University’s connection to companies which not only invest heavily in our students, but invest in Israel as well. We stood side by side through a challenging time, and showed with immense pride that Illinois is a campus for every single student to call home and have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. And more than that, we showed that Illinois is a pro-Israel Campus. We know we never could have done this without our amazing IlliniPAC members.
Following this victory, what a better way to bring some Israel pride to campus than hearing from Tal Brody, Illini Basketball hall-of-famer who became one of the most successful athletes in Israeli history.
This year, following Spring break we sent a delegation of 30 students to AIPAC’s Annual Policy Conference in Washington DC. We heard from world leaders and political heads like Olga Meshoe, Nikki Haley, Paul Ryan and Chemi Peres. We took Capitol Hill by storm splitting up and lobbying representatives and Senators from every state we each call home.
After Policy Conference, our favorite Midwest Field Coordinator, Lila Greenberg, visited us to meet with student leaders and have lunch at Firehaus!
We followed that up with our amazing Letters to Lawmakers event, where students wrote 37 personal letters to their representatives urging them to oppose BDS. What an amazing way to empower students through politics! UI-7 News was nice enough to feature us as their lead story the next day.
But we are not all serious. IlliniPAC Barcrawl was truly a barcrawl unlike any other barcrawl. The night was very fun, but perhaps the best part is that it raised funds for the Shimon Peres Center for Peace.
Next, we gathered with all of you on the quad to mark Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance day in a very emotional candlelight vigil. Together, we showed that our generation will Never Forget.
Israel Week 2017 kicked off with an in-depth talk from Ambassador Dennis Ross, former Envoy for Middle East Peace and advisor to five U.S. Presidents. What an honor to have him on campus! Israel Week this year was filled with Israel food parties, a bar night, Israel on the Quad, fundraisers, a Yom Hazikaron Ceremony, and more. IlliniPAC is proud to be a part of this amazing annual effort.
It has been a full year. Perhaps the busiest ever in our history. We know, that while the school is year is coming to an end, our work is truly just beginning.
In the coming semester, IlliniPAC will continue to get involved with even more projects promoting peace and coexistence – and we do not just mean in Israel. We must address the disappointing divisiveness on our campus today. We want to grow and strengthen relationships with even more student leaders, with the goal of working to mend some of these important issues. We want to hear from you all how we can work together for a better campus. Through our combined skills, visions, and values, and our collective knowledge and experience, we can better advocate for students, and really shape the future for the better.
At Policy Conference this year, there was a session at the Verizon Center just for students. In that room, a speaker told us that the professional leaders of each organization we work with continuously refer to us, the students, as the leaders of the future. But, he said to us, we as college students are not the leaders of the future – we are the leaders of today.
We have the ability now to make our voices heard and create the change in our communities that we want to see. With our campus community by our side, we can make this happen.
Let us conclude by recognize our amazing Cadre (Executive Board): Elana Blinder, Jacob Vilker, Maor Kramer, and our seniors Jamie Elekman and Samantha Simon. We love you so much. Without you, none of this would be at all possible. Your dedication to our mission inspires both of us every day. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
It is our honor and pleasure to serve as co-Presidents of this amazing organization. We look forward to continue leading IlliniPAC in the coming fall semester.
Am Israel Chai.
Sincerely, and with love,
Hayley and Elan