Bama student stands tall — but not alone — for Israel

By Richard Friedman 

Rebecca Gilbert stands tall. For Israel. Against antisemitism. Engaging others. But the 21-year-old University of Alabama senior does not stand alone.

That is because she is part of a U.S.-based organization, StandWithUs. The organization has developed a network of student leaders, including Rebecca, on college campuses throughout the U.S., Canada, Israel, the UK, Brazil and other countries. The students stand together on behalf of Israel and motivate others to do the same.

The group, known as the SWU Emerson Fellows, was founded in 2007 by philanthropists Steve and Rita Emerson. The Fellows educate Jewish students and their broader campus communities about the true nature of Israel as well as growing antisemitism. “Throughout the year, Emerson Fellows create interesting Israel programming designed to engage others, including bringing in speakers and creating educational and cultural events. They also monitor and respond to anti-Israel and antisemitic actions,” the organization explains.

Rebecca’s devotion to Israel took hold while she was growing up in Kennesaw, Ga., 45 minutes outside of Atlanta. She attended a Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp, and participated in Jewish youth programming. From those experiences and other influences, her pride in being Jewish and dedication to Israel deepened. The turning point was going to Israel on a Birthright Israel trip her freshman year of college. This led to her staying in Israel two months beyond the trip. After that, there was no turning back.

“I fell in love with Israel,” she recalled with a broad smile during a recent FaceTime conversation. “Israel became something I was super-passionate about. I wanted to share my experiences with everyone around me.”

Not only did she begin vesting herself in Israel intellectually and emotionally, but her journey led her to go back to Israel during a time of need. Last December, she was in Sderot for a children’s Chanukah celebration assisting as a volunteer. For years, Sderot has been the target of deadly rockets fired from the nearby Gaza Strip. Rebecca’s job was to distribute backpacks filled with school supplies, toys and hygiene products for children ages 2 to 12 suffering with PTSD as a result of the attacks.

This was one more experience that prepared her for her Emerson Fellow role. Being there and witnessing both the trauma and resilience of the Israelis first-hand, vests one even more deeply and helps them become a more determined and effective advocate.

Full Throttle

Rebecca, a psychology major with a 4.0 GPA, is the first SWU Emerson Fellow at the University of Alabama. Despite the obstacles Covid has created, she has embraced the opportunity full-throttle. Table displays, one-on-one conversations and Zoom calls are just three of the ways she has reached out to her fellow students. She wants to excite them about the Israel she loves, and help them realize that through their actions and words they have the potential to advance Israel’s well-being.

Emerson Fellows receive a stipend along with training, mentorship, access to a network of other student leaders, and the opportunity to attend two conferences. Applicants go through a process with approximately 50 percent accepted.

The training Emerson Fellows receive is rigorous. In the August training program held virtually this year that Rebecca and her colleagues went through, “Students learned how to create their personal ‘Israel story,’ and how to present it to different groups. They took a deep dive into Israel’s history, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and went across the spectrum to the dueling narratives of both sides for the context necessary to have insightful conversations about Israel. They grilled experts and also learned when legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism.”

Emerson Fellows are encouraged to reach out to various student groups, including ones that aren’t Jewish, to engage them in supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. This is something Rebecca wants to do and believes such students will be receptive. In general, she feels that while things at Alabama are not perfect all of the time regarding these two issues, the Tuscaloosa campus overall is very welcoming toward Jews and supportive of Israel. She has encountered no resistance or pushback regarding SWU’s presence and the work she wants to do.

The Alabama senior first encountered SWU in high school. In 2012, the organization created the StandWithUs High School Internship, developing a network of interns. Rebecca was impressed and motivated by the Southeast High School director she heard speak. Since then, the high school program has grown to 125 throughout North America. There are no interns in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana this year, though there are a record number in Florida.

There also are Emerson Fellows on college campuses throughout Florida, including Saint Leo University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida State University, University of South Florida, Nova Southeastern University, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. Talia Lerner, SWU’s senior Southern campus coordinator, works with students throughout the region, including those at Tulane University, where there have been Emerson Fellows.

At Florida State University there have been some challenging antisemitism issues. Last year’s Florida State Emerson Fellow, Lioz Grunberger, was heavily involved in these issues. For his work he received SWU’s first annual “Movement Builder Award for Strategy and Impact.”

Sweet Spot

SWU is involved in a broad array of strategies and programs, but students from middle school through college are the organization’s “sweet spot.” For Rebecca, getting to know Rabbi Adam Wright, of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El, last summer, as part of a Hillel program connecting Jewish college students to the Birmingham Jewish community, was another turning point. Rabbi Wright, a strong proponent of StandWithUs, encouraged her to apply for an Emerson Fellowship.

“StandWithUs is on the front lines, fighting for Jewish students, Jewish values and Jewish rights, especially on the college campus. StandWithUs is a cutting-edge nonprofit that continues to have numerous victories against BDS (an anti-Israel economic initiative) and school systems that aim to delegitimize Israel. If any antisemitism arises, StandWithUs is my first and only call,” Wright explained.

“Having Rebecca as an Emerson Fellow will ensure the training and mentorship of future leaders who know how to respond to those who seek to harm the Jewish People and their unquestionable and undeniable homeland, Israel,” added Wright.

Rebecca explained that the core responsibilities of an Emerson Fellow include enhancing the work already being done on campus in the areas of Israel education and combating antisemitism. The work is often done in coordination with existing campus organizations, such as Hillel, AIPAC and Chabad, all three of which Rebecca has been involved in. On Aug. 20, for example, Bama Hillel hosted its annual Jewish Life Fair for freshmen. Rebecca represented StandWithUs and explained the resources it can provide to Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Technically, Rebecca is only responsible for the University of Alabama, but because there are no other fellows in Alabama, she is available to assist students at any of the state’s campuses, together with Talia Lerner.

The SWU Emerson Fellowship lasts one year, and Rebecca’s goal is to recruit someone to follow her so that the program continues at Alabama. In terms of her own future, she would like to attend law school and Alabama is one of her top choices.

A year from now, when she looks back on the academic year she spent as a SWU Emerson Fellow, she hopes to have created a dynamic presence for the program and high visibility, especially to enhance the chances of it continuing. Rebecca encourages anyone connected to the campus community who is interested in educating about Israel, fighting antisemitism or learning more to contact her.

“We just want to be here for the entire campus community,” she emphasizes. “You don’t need to be Jewish to be part of StandWithUs. If you want to help Israel, we would be happy to show you how and to assist you.”

In other words, StandWithUs.