The tension was tangible and skepticism high on Saturday afternoon as Jewish student delegates from around the world took their seats in a Jerusalem hotel conference room for the candidate debate between Avigayil Benstein and Victor Yamin. Both were running for president of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS).
Neither was extremely well known, but with her perfect American-English and thoughtful answers, Benstein emerged in seconds as the more serious player, participants said after the debate.
The 24-year-old Jerusalem native is the daughter of a British mother and American father who met at a WUJS program years ago. Benstein’s platform ran on bringing to the conference table a mix of Diaspora awareness and an Israeli ability to maneuver bureaucracy.
Then there was 32-year-old Victor Yamin from Bnei Brak who discovered WUJS recently when someone told him he should run for president. Since he didn’t submit a platform, “random” and “unknown” were the common words heard to describe him.
There was also a third option: to postpone the election altogether. What unraveled was an awkward one-sided debate, with Benstein on the tilting end of snapping fingers and nodding heads.
These 165 young people from 36 countries were in town to vote on motions for the year and receive professional training during the 44th World Congress of Jewish Students (WCJS).
Also at the conference, in what was considered a significant move by the organization, according to Benstein, WUJS passed a motion at this year’s general assembly to recognize and remember the Armenian genocide. Its decision was based on the importance for a Jewish organization to fight all forms of racism, according to the motion’s text.
The organization’s recognition of the tragedy in Jerusalem was particularly noteworthy, considering that Israel still does not officially recognize the Armenian genocide, though the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sports Committee voted last year to recognize it.
Back on track
In 2007, the once-leading organization was on the verge of collapse. Today, it’s back on the upturn.
The rejuvenation of WUJS is largely due to the efforts of the outgoing chairperson, Yosef Tarshish (it was voted to change the title from chairperson to president moving forward). The 26-year-old known as “Yos” was the driving force behind the organization’s new growth and direction. Originally from just outside of London, Tarshish made Aliyah in 2014 and lives in Jerusalem.
When Tarshish started as chairperson in January 2016, the organization was half a million shekels in debt (approximately $145,000). Under his direction, WUJS paid back 95 percent of that and under their current repayment plan will be debt free by June 2018. The organization’s annual budget more than doubled since 2015.
The majority of funding now comes from the Jewish National Fund, World Zionist Organization and World Jewish Congress, in addition to private donations and alumni.
The organization has also seen significant membership growth. In 2013, 65 delegates from 13 countries attended the conference, showing a near tripling in size over five years. In 2015, WUJS had 28 active member organizations and today has 37 — including the addition of the Turkish Jewish student union.
According to Tarshish, based on the issues facing the Jewish people and world at large, WUJS is more relevant than ever. As he pointed out, “There isn’t another forum that brings together this diverse of a Jewish young cohort of leaders.”
While delegations sit together to vote, during breaks and meals, tables aren’t divided by country but blend a rich mix of Jewish young people from India to the Czech Republic who are actively talking about how to restart a Jewish revolution.
Big name founders
Original WUJS founders Sigmund Freud and Chaim Weizmann would be proud. Among others, they launched WUJS in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium, and in January 1925 Albert Einstein was elected as the first president of the fledgling organization.
It’s WUJS legend that Natan Sharansky made his first Israeli public appearance in 1986 after his nine years in Siberian prison before thousands of WUJS activists at Binyanei Ha’uma in Jerusalem, telling the crowd that he owed his freedom to the students who demonstrated for him around the world.
The Americans return
The existence of this robust representative body would be surprising to most American Jewish students.
The last time that an American union had voting status in WUJS was in 1993, but that union was disbanded a year later. According to The Forward, “In 1994 the Jewish community turned its back on the student-initiated model in favor of the professionally administered one advocated by Hillel. Independent student activists who relied on funding from the Jewish federations were forced to incorporate themselves into the Hillel framework.”
Due to the shift in financial resources, the American cohort, then called “The Network,” was unable to sustain its activities. A new group of American students is working to change that.
Current WUJS board member Dan Smith rebooted the American union in 2016, and America was voted in as an observer member last year.
Smith graduated, but approximately four months ago a new group of students came together, rebranding themselves as “AMUJS.” They were upgraded to partial-member status with voting rights at this year’s Congress.
Adela Cojab is a junior at NYU and one of the leaders of AMUJS. Cojab heard about WUJS about a year ago at the World Jewish Congress conference.
The goal of AMUJS, Cojab said, isn’t to create a new organization to go alongside a Hillel or Chabad, but rather to find student leaders already associated with these organizations to represent American students at WUJS.
“[American Jewish students] didn’t know we were representing them,” she said. “We can give these [American] student activists a voice at the table.”
The dynamic student leader leans forward as she speaks about her dissatisfaction with the status quo and her plan to bring power back to the students. Cojab said that what separates AMUJS from all of the other student-based organizations is that it is run by democratically-elected students.
“Hillel is led by paid professionals and funded by sponsors with a very clear political and cultural agenda. That is not the same as a grassroots organization,” she said.
In 2006, Hillel and WUJS signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” in which WUJS agreed to “look to Hillel students as a primary source of mainstream student representation,” but the agreement is no longer active.
Just call it “Zionism”
Outgoing chairman Tarshish speaks in threes: there are three types of Jews, three problems facing the Jewish people and three solutions. His speech quickens with a clearheaded urgency that recalls a level of enthusiasm one could find in an organization’s founder.
A main focus of the Congress is to set the organization’s stance on issues and launch campaigns for the year to come, he said. Besides the recognition of the Armenian genocide, among the motions passed this year was a commitment to Jewish pluralism in Israel. Combating the rise of radical-right extremism in Europe and appropriately battling BDS were additional focuses.
Beyond the issues of the day, the conference creates a space to think about the greater philosophical questions facing a young generation of Jewish activists. For Tarshish, rethinking Zionism and Jewish students’ relationship with Israel is at the forefront of the agenda.
“Twenty years ago we used to call ourselves Zionists and that meant something,” he said.
“There seems to be a common consensus within the hasbara and advocacy establishment or industry, as I like to call it — because it is an industry — that says that Zionism is a word that doesn’t poll well on campus with millennials and so it’s a word that’s not to be used anymore because it’s been dirtied. My response is absolutely the opposite,” he said.
“We as a movement need to be leading the way in reclaiming the word ‘Zionism’ and getting students to call themselves that on college campuses, making it clear that reform, progressive… forms of Zionism are all Zionism,” he said.
It’s this kind of frustration for current institutional practices that continues to flow through WUJS. While Tarshish will stay on as a board member, the conference also elected a new generation of leaders.
A chairman leaves, a president arrives
Sunday’s general assembly finally arrived and everyone filed back into the conference room to find out who or if there would be a president.
Benstein — the only candidate to show up to the assembly — was announced as the new WUJS president to a round of cheers and applause.
On a practical level, her focus is on fundraising and obtaining free office space and support from the Jewish Agency.
Benstein and her peers take their jobs seriously as elected representatives of world student Jewry.
The question now is whether world student Jewry sees them as such.
Benstein is confident that now is the time for WUJS to reinforce its role as the legitimate representative of Jewish students worldwide. With a broad smile and still in a bit of shock, she spoke only minutes after the results were announced.
“We as a Jewish people have always been pushing the boundaries of humanity,” she said, interrupted by hugs and congratulations as friends walked by.
“Students are at the forefront in an unparalleled way; in every revolution in recent memory students have been the catalyst. It’s the Jewish students’ job to push the rest of the Jewish people to make the world a better place.”