While at Penn, I was also in charge of a pro-Israel student activism group – we were grassroots, outside of the establishment, connecting people and spreading some truth. While similar in some ways to H2H, it wasn’t connected – although there were some instances where they seemed very much intertwined…
Amidst all the campus brouhaha following the 2008 War in Gaza, I went with some fellow pro-Israel students to an anti-Israel presentation, mostly just to “ask questions” and “present some opposing arguments in the name of academic freedom and integrity”. During the Q&A after the anti-Israel speeches, one student got up and said: “I have to admit – I’m Jewish and my whole family is pro-Israel, but I just can’t believe how stupid they are! They’re blind to the poor Palestinians, and I’m ashamed to be associated with them.” He went on bashing Jewish support for Israel, and disassociating himself from those people. My few friends sitting nearby whispered to me, with their fists in their hands, “We gotta go teach this guy a lesson…”
“Guys, guys”, I said, trying to calm everyone down, “He just needs some love – let’s go over and try and talk to him.” And so, after the event was over, we went over to try and speak to him, but by then all the pro-Palestinians had gathered around him (of course, they love those anti-Israel Jews…) and we didn’t have a fighting chance.
Around two weeks later I was at the off-campus supermarket late one night, randomly doing some shopping. When in the check-out line, I turn around and guess who’s in line behind me – that guy from the anti-Israel event! As I notice him, he notices me too, and seemingly recognizes me. “Aren’t you the guy from the…?”, he asked, to which I finished “…the Israel/Palestinian event, yea, I though I recognized you too…” After we both finished paying, we stood outside the store. “So tell me”, he said, “Why do you support Israel?” Knowing it wasn’t really about politics (and that I wasn’t going to win that argument), I started talking about what Israel means to me – as the birthplace of a nation, and my family’s homeland, as the in-gathering destination of all Jews, as the historic and cultural roots of Judaism and the Jewish people. I went on about how Judaism for me wasn’t an archaic and dry religion – it was a tradition, and a family, and a nation rooted in its homeland, and an all-encompassing way of life. And so Israel for me, and for all Jews actually has historic and current meaning, and means something much more than political arguments can describe. “Wow”, he exclaimed, “I never realized was being Jewish was all about – I thought it was just my grandmother’s brisket and some bad jokes.” And so we went on talking about Judaism, the multicultural aspect of Jewish nationhood, my experiences visiting Israel, and some interesting elements of Jewish life. At the end we argues about politics for a little bit, but mostly agreed, or agreed to disagree. And an hour later, I headed back home.
Of course, the first people I told (while laughing uncontrollably) were my friends from the event – “You see? He just needed some love!”. And a few weeks later, as Passover rolled around, he sent me an email, asking where he could find “a meaningful Seder and some good homemade kosher food :)” I sent him an invite to our Seders, but I’m not sure if he ever showed up – but I was too preoccupied to even notice. The next year, I ran into him at our “Activity Fair Shabbat table” and he signed up to come to a Shabbat dinner(!) – but he never responded to our email invitation a few weeks later. I tried again a few months later – and again he ignored an invitation to Shabbat dinner. But I’d see him around campus occasionally and we’d have a friendly chat. While often hesitant about being too pushy, I kept pursuing him because he had initially reached out to me and and repeatedly expressed interest, and I could tell there was a spark there – he just needed someone to keep trying to ignite it…
Finally, a year after our first encounter, I invited him again – and he showed up. Not only did he come to Shabbat dinner, but he brought his girlfriend too – who it turns out was unknowingly Jewish! And it was amazing – he was engrossed in conversations and discussions, loved the food, the people, the environment, and he stayed for hours. In what could have been the downfall of the night, one of my friends from the original anti-Israel event walked into the room in the middle of dinner. “Do I know you from somewhere?”, he asked. My friend played it cool – “Nope, never seen you before”, side-stepping that bullet. Turns out, they were both studying abroad in Southeast Asia and ended up having a whole conversation in Chinese! He wanted to come back, he wanted to be more a part of it next time – b’kitzur, it was a success!
That semester he went abroad, I graduated, and before I knew it I was out spreading H2H around the country – and sadly, became “too busy” to remember all the people I had met at Penn, including this guy. Until I got a call from a friend one day the next fall – “Hart, I met your friend!” Elaborating, she told me she was eating lunch in Hillel that day and decided to go sit with some guy who was sitting on his own. So she went over, they started talking, and she asked if he comes here a lot. “Nope, never really been – but I’ve been to some other Jewish things and really loved it!” He then said that he really wanted to come back, but just didn’t know anyone. “Well, do you know Hart?”, she suggested. “Yeah!”, he said “Hart’s one of my really good friends!”
From time to time I remember all the people I met, reached out to, had at Shabbat dinners, had meaningful conversations with – and I’d wonder if it had any lasting impact. And whether my advances and efforts were well received and they actually felt a connection and genuine friendship with me, or whether it was all in my mind. Hearing something like that made it all worth it 🙂