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A university community’s resilience leads the way forward for Israel

In many ways, this remarkable resilience hearkens back to the pioneering spirit of David Ben-Gurion himself, who envisioned that Israel’s future would emerge from the Negev

Doug Seserman during leadership mission - credit Dani Machlis
Doug Seserman during leadership mission - credit Dani Machlis

Remarkable resilience.

After participating on a recent leadership solidarity mission to Israel for the first time since the October 7 attacks, those two words seem to encapsulate the state of the Israeli people at their darkest hour. They also offer a microcosm of Israel’s future.

In my 22 years as a Jewish professional and with more than 80 trips to Israel, being there during this time was one of the most challenging but necessary experiences in my life.

We visited Kibbutz Be’eri and the site of the Nova music festival at Reim. Together, they represented some 440 of the 1,200 people murdered by Hamas on October 7. We stopped in Sderot, where the police station was overrun by Hamas terrorists who attacked it with the precision of an organized and trained militia. The city, which has long borne the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks, has been evacuated since October 7. We had dinner with wounded student reserve soldiers who had just resumed classes — each one emphatically stating their desire to go back into Gaza to defend their country again if they could. And, on one morning during the trip, we woke up to news that three members of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) community were among the 21 IDF soldiers killed that day by explosions in central Gaza.

Doug Seserman at Kibbutz Be’eri

Given the magnitude of the devastation on October 7 and in the months following, the Israeli people are understandably broken. But they are strong. They are remarkably resilient.

The cornerstone for this resilience lies in the community of BGU. Given its 22-mile proximity to Gaza, the University was directly and disproportionately impacted by October 7. Over 111 students, faculty, and staff were murdered or have died in the line of duty, 29 were injured, four kidnapped, and more than 6,000 have been called to reserve duty. And yet, the same community that suffered such immense loss responded –  remarkably. BGU students immediately began volunteering in hospitals throughout Israel, providing medical and psychological assistance to wounded Israelis and their families. Students and faculty members supported the families of IDF soldiers called up for reserve duty by looking after their children and maintaining their homes. University dormitories opened to families of casualties, evacuees, and army reservists, while evacuated families were also hosted at the homes of BGU faculty and staff. Dozens of students and staff members supported a massive logistical operation for sorting and preparing food and supplies contributions.

In many ways, this remarkable resilience hearkens back to the pioneering spirit of David Ben-Gurion himself, who envisioned that Israel’s future would emerge from the Negev. Today, that vision is more important than ever. It has always manifested in the cutting-edge research carried out at BGU — research that resulted in global solutions in water conservation, environmental science, medical research, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and more. In a post-October 7 reality, BGU and its innovations will be key to Israel’s long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Take Dr. Oren Wacht, head of BGU’s Department of Emergency Medicine. Called to reserve duty on October 8, Dr. Wacht uses the spare time that he has away from the IDF to continue teaching at the University. In fact, his military and academic duties have converged in a highly impactful way. While in Gaza, Wacht identified a need for capsules to protect lifesaving medication for soldiers. He asked BGU faculty members to create such capsules through 3D printing technology, and today, these capsules are being used by paramedics in the field and are customized for the needs of different IDF units.

In the aftermath of the October 7 tragedy, Dr. Talia Schwartz-Tayri, a faculty member at the BGU Spitzer Department of Social Work, saw the urgent need for mental health support for survivors, soldiers, and families of abductees who experienced such horrific events. Her lab at the University quickly got to work and created a WhatsApp bot designed to offer real-time, tailored instructions to help individuals cope with trauma, regardless of their location or circumstances.

These are just some of the incredible initiatives that BGU has spearheaded, and ones that Americans for Ben-Gurion University (A4BGU) will be showcasing during its annul virtual event on May 8, fittingly titled, “Remarkable Resilience. Leading the Way Forward.” This event will further demonstrate how BGU, the anchor institution and engine for growth in the Negev, has led and continues to lead the way forward for Israel from the South.

That is precisely why BGU launched “Way Forward,” its landmark $1 billion global fundraising campaign and the largest philanthropic endeavor in its history. A4BGU is proud to partner with the University in this audacious goal and has committed to raising 60% of the campaign, or $600 million, by galvanizing American supporters into action.

Planning for the campaign was in the works long before the tragic events of October 7 and initially focused on amplifying BGU’s research and academic excellence. In the aftermath of the Hamas massacres — a turning point of greater magnitude than any other since the establishment of the state of Israel — the campaign has gained even greater urgency. As the largest employer in the region, BGU is key to the economic vitality of southern Israel and will play a pivotal role in rebuilding the Negev and thus strengthening Israel as a whole.

I left the solidarity mission more committed than ever to A4BGU’s work to build a movement of Americans who are committed to improving the world through a new 21st century unifying vision for Israel. Much like David Ben-Gurion’s vision, this movement is rooted in the belief that BGU is the way forward for Israel. I also left even more inspired by the bravery and brilliance of the University’s students and faculty. There will be brighter days ahead. There is no question that although we are broken, our strength will endure. Together, we will prevail.

Doug Seserman is the CEO of Americans for Ben-Gurion University. An award-winning nonprofit executive known for his creative business vision, Doug was named one of The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews in 2023 for his vision and impact as a thought leader and changemaker in transforming the conversation around 21st Century Zionism.

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