From Dec. 27 to Dec. 31, the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) met at Kibbutz Tzuba outside Jerusalem for its 43rd international congress of Jewish student leaders. This year, the WUJS Congress hosted 27 American students, the largest delegation of American Jews in over 20 years, through NETWORK: The American Union of Jewish Students, a national, independent Jewish student union.
Active as early as the 1970s, NETWORK recently re-entered the Jewish campus landscape. Together with students, NETWORK President Mayer Stein has been working to revive NETWORK for a year and a half. A recent University of Maryland, Baltimore County alum, he believes that, as an independent student group, NETWORK can work alongside the Jewish campus establishment to contribute to Jewish student life in new ways.
“We were able to locate issues that aren’t serviced by campus organizations,” Stein said. “We’re trying to fill in the cracks.”
According to Stein, as a group composed of and led by students, NETWORK will directly tailor its work to the issues students care about most. “As opposed to the organizations that are top down, we’re bottom up,” said Stein. “The issues that come up on campus are student issues. They’re the only ones who can say what the problems are on their campuses. I can’t stress it enough. We’re extremely careful to listen to students about how we can help them.”
The group hopes to connect Jewish students through inter-campus programing and call attention to the voices of the next generation of Jewish leaders.
“NETWORK aims to amplify, empower, and unite the voice of American Jewish students,” said NETWORK Director of Outreach and Partnerships Ross Beroff, a student at Northeastern University. “We will connect Jewish students, amplify their voice to the greater Jewish community and other minority groups, along with providing opportunities for genuine leadership development on a regional or national scale.”
From the get-go, Stein hoped NETWORK would attend the WUJS Congress, connecting American students to an international student community.
This year, the event hosted over 100 delegates from 32 countries including students from India, Guatemala, Bolivia, Argentina, Switzerland, Lithuania, and Denmark.
“We want young Jewish people to be aware that they’re one cog in a machine,” said WUJS Chairperson Yosef Tarshish.
According to Stein, WUJS’s values closely align with NETWORK’s values. Like NETWORK, WUJS is invested in independent student movements, connecting Jewish student unions worldwide. Most of its delegations come from countries that lack overarching campus organizations and, out of necessity, create student-led groups. NETWORK leaders believe the U.S. can incorporate this international model alongside existing campus organizations to further enrich Jewish student life.
This year’s WUJS Congress workshops focused on topics including activism, LGBT inclusion, feminism, and disability advocacy in the Jewish community.
“There are lots of people who can end up feeling the Jewish community isn’t for them,” said Tarshish. For him, a central question is, “How do we avoid having Jewish students feeling alienated from the community?”
Stein said NETWORK has a similar emphasis on activism and inclusion. “Hillel’s focus is on student services,” said Stein. “Ours is on activism. Jewish students are excited about [engaging] with other groups…” Stein thinks NETWORK can be a resource for students in creating peer-to-peer relationships across student groups and as members of diverse Jewish student communities.
“…We can bring students to one table together and say, ‘The only thing is your Jewish identity. We don’t care about your denomination, your political affiliation, or anything. Come in and talk. Let’s see what we do have in common and try to understand what we don’t.’”
At the conference, NETWORK officially joined WUJS as an observer member. Both parties look forward to their partnership.
“There is definitely a difference between the American Jewish community and others around the world,” said Beroff. “At the same time, there is the common denominator of just being Jewish that can connect us all.”
Nicole Zelniker is a senior at Guilford College. She is an English major from New York and the editor in chief of her college newspaper, The Guilfordian.