Many U.S. students become part of lost generation

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NEW YORK — Countless Americans who have spent a semester or a year studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem point to the experience as a turning point in their lives, leading them to careers as rabbis, Jewish educators and communal leaders.

Among them is Andrea Weiss, a U.C. Berkeley graduate who planned to study law after her spring semester at Hebrew University in 1986. She returned to Berkeley to complete her bachelor's degree, but two years later she was back in Israel studying to become a Reform rabbi.

Hebrew University also shaped the lives of Americans who went on to prominent careers in other fields. Well-known alumni include the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, and his predecessor, Martin Indyk. CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman are among top media figures who studied there.

But for the foreseeable future, few Americans may receive the nurturing and intellectual stimulation in Israel that has shaped so many lives.

Even before last week's bombing, Israeli universities' overseas programs reported a precipitous drop in enrollment over the past two years.

Now with the death of seven Hebrew University students — five of them Americans — enrollments are expected to plummet even further.

Currently 126 American students are enrolled at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School. A decade ago, more than 1,000 participated each year. That program has been the largest of the Israeli university study-abroad programs.

While some students persevere — 17 students departed for Ben-Gurion University's overseas program on Tuesday — most who might have otherwise participated in such programs are choosing other options these days.

Steven Cohen, a professor at the Melton Centre at the Hebrew University, calls them a "lost Jewish generation."

"The people who we lost and the people who will not show up in Israel are, frankly, the most idealistic, most committed to Israel, most dedicated to Jewish life," said Cohen, whose specialty is the sociology of American Jews.

"We're now going to experience a lost Jewish generation that won't have the benefit of a Jewish education with others of their kind, and this will be with us for the next 50 years."

Already two theories about this problem are emerging, Cohen said. "One is that we've already hit rock-bottom in terms of the numbers of students who have come here knowing full well the risks and all the dangers associated with living in Israel.

"The other theory is that the cafeteria bombing is an element of danger that these students hadn't anticipated. Some may leave, some who enrolled may not show up, and those who applied for next year may be dissuaded from coming."

At this point, it remains unclear how badly the ongoing Mideast strife will continue to hurt Hebrew University and other overseas programs in Israel, Cohen said.

Every student who stays home represents someone who has missed an experience many American Jews considered central to their lives.

Coincidentally, Weiss, the Berkeley graduate, is the second cousin of Marla Bennett, the U.C. Berkeley graduate who was killed in last week's attack at Hebrew University.

Weiss' Hebrew University experience in the spring of 1986 was the first time she'd been to Israel, where she took Jewish studies courses and studied Hebrew literature.

"My Jewish education really came alive," she now says.

She returned to Jerusalem in 1988 as part of her studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and became a Reform rabbi. Now she teaches Bible at HUC-JIR in New York.

"To people who knew me, it seemed like the most natural thing I could have done with my life," said Weiss, who lives outside of Philadelphia.

Weiss also has a 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca, whom she prays she can take to Israel one day soon.

Lisa Magnas, a descendent of Hebrew University founder Rabbi Judah Magnes and president of the greater New York chapter of the Hebrew University Alumni Association, calls her year abroad from 1986-1987 crucial.

Magnas had been to Israel as a child with her parents, but found herself in Israel in the years following its war in Lebanon, when the first Palestinian uprising broke out.

It was the first time she was living on her own, and Magnas dove into courses she couldn't find at her U.S. college: biblical archaeology, Islamic civilization, oil and politics.

She made friends with Jews, Christians, Muslims and Greek Orthodox students, with whom she would engage in an "ongoing dialogue" about Israel, their home countries, their travel plans.

As one of the few modern Orthodox women on campus who came from the world of Jewish day schools, the experience "made me feel like I was really in the world," she recalled.

And as a fluent Hebrew speaker, she studied the Israeli media and discovered a new take on the Mideast conflict.

"It opened my eyes," she said.

After working in the banking industry, Magnas decided to act on her passions about the media, and is now executive producer of a feature film about "liberal media bias" that is in the works, called "Amnesia Jam."

Just a few years after Magnas attended Hebrew University, the Gulf War broke out.

That year, 1990-1991, Paul Arberman attended Hebrew University. In the time since, Arberman earned a degree in government from Wesleyan University, worked for then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), spent another year in Israel — and made aliyah three years ago.

Arberman is due to be ordained this December as a Conservative rabbi after attending the Jewish Theological Seminary-affiliated Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and he draws a direct line from his time at Hebrew University to today.

His decision to become a rabbi "was largely due to my happy year there," when he studied political science, debated politics with other students, enjoyed Israeli dancing, frequented cafes, and went on historical and nature tours of Israel.

"You form a relationship with the land that runs deep," he said. "The national dialogue becomes your dialogue."

One classmate of Arberman's was Scott Lasensky, who today is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

A graduate of UCLA, Lasensky not only spent his junior year at the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, but he returned in 1998 to pursue his doctorate in international relations.

During his undergraduate year, Lasensky roomed with a Korean student, took courses with leading thinkers such as Peace Now activist and Soviet Union expert Galia Golan, and explored Israel and the territories.

He ultimately wrote his doctoral dissertation on the role of foreign aid in the Middle East peace process.

His first year at Hebrew University "planted a seed" for his career, he said.

"It was a formative, edifying experience that likely led me to seek a professional as well as personal connection to Israel and the Middle East."

Like many Hebrew University alumni, Lasensky has kept in touch with his friends from that year, and some remain professional contacts today.

And he's not alone.

"You have many people close to this conflict as well as the peace process at an elite level who have close connections" to Hebrew University, he said.

Many former students are hopeful that terrorism and the Mideast conflict will not prevent other U.S. students from going to Hebrew University and Israel in the future.

"Almost three generations of American Jews have studied there," said Lasensky, whose father studied at Hebrew University in the early 1970s.

"That kind of connection is not so easily wiped out."