Gefen Gabrieli, 29, was always interested in Jewish communities around the world, she says. So it’s no surprise she is excited about becoming an Israel fellow at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Hillel.
“I’m really liking Madison. I think it’s a beautiful city,” Gabrieli said. “The Hillel house is amazing and there’s just so many great facilities that we have.”
Gabrieli is in charge of everything that connects Israel to Hillel on campus – internships, cultural programs and Birthright, which is a free heritage trip to Israel.
She represents the Jewish Agency for Israel, which places Israel fellows on campuses throughout North America to engage Jewish college students in dialogue that helps promote positive aspects of Israel.
Gabrieli was raised in Kefar Sava, which is a half hour drive from Tel Aviv. Her mother is from England and she made aliyah in her early 20s. Her father is Israeli.
Gabrieli earned a degree in special education and drama therapy at Tel-Chai College in the northern Galilee. She taught youth and preschoolers at a moshav (town) called Beit Hillel before taking the job in Madison.
Nearly 5,000 students, roughly 10 percent, are Jewish at UW-Madison. About 1,000 students are active with Hillel, Gabrieli said. They come to Shabbat dinners and attend Jewish cultural programs.
“I’m still quite new so I’m learning about the place and meeting all the students,” said Gabrieli, who arrived the third week in August. “I’m excited to start working with them.”
Her job is not without challenges, including the large number of Jewish students on campus and some reported incidents of antisemitism.
“I know a lot of parents and students are concerned about being Jewish on campus. They worry about organizations that are anti-Israel or antisemitic.”
They question if they will be safe here or will they have the sense of community that they had growing up.”
The new school year brought antisemitic incidents, in the form of sidewalk chalked messages (see story, p. 29). Prior to that, in March, the university issued a report on three incidents of antisemitism: a swastika etched into a residence bathroom stall; antisemitic slurs yelled at a student; and a student who said they had been harassed for “looking Jewish.”
Gabrieli said her job, along with the team, is to “make students feel welcome and that there’s a place for them and a community life. They can have their own identity, as pluralistic as possible.”
What Gabrieli admires about Hillel “is the fact that it has a place for everyone who is Jewish and living a Jewish life. Everyone decides for themselves their way of being Jewish. It could be cultural or more religious, social or traditional.
“No matter who you are, how you grew up, where you are from, you can feel safe with your Jewish identity and explore your Judaism in your own way.”