Hillels of Georgia has three Israel fellows stationed on college campuses, two more than during last school year.
Ana Sazonov, Omer Zimmerman and Nitzan Ben Eliyahu are in charge of Israel programming on campus and act as representatives of Israel for college students.
The yearlong process of becoming an Israel fellow through the Jewish Agency for Israel is intense, Sazonov said.
As potential recruits, the three went through months of tests and group dynamic exercises to see how they would react under pressure and would work with others. Once they passed all the tests and qualified to be sent to an American university, the new Israel fellows interviewed with multiple campuses until they were finally placed where their personalities fit the best.
Sazonov is the Israel fellow at Emory.
“I represent a closure for the Jewish Agency,” she said, referring to the assistance her family got from the agency in moving to Israel from Ukraine. “Basically, right now I’m returning back what the Jewish Agency gave me.”
Sazonov worked in various fields before deciding to take on the challenge of bringing Israel to campus.
“I got to the point where I didn’t do anything meaningful with my life. I wanted to change and do something meaningful,” she said, “To have this huge impact on the students … it’s very meaningful and empowering, for them and for me.”
With Sazonov at Emory, it is Zimmerman’s job to handle the rest of the Atlanta-area college campuses, including Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University. He also had experience with the Jewish Agency, having been placed by the agency at a summer camp in Florida when he was 17.
Before he started college for his political science and communications degrees, he worked on Birthright Israel trips as a medic and security guard. “I decided I want to work with those kind of people all the time,” he said about young American Jews. “I think I have the knowledge to give them what they need.”
He hopes to engage as many students as he can and to hold more events and programs related to Israel.
Ben Eliyahu is the University of Georgia’s full-time fellow. She spent her Israeli military service doing social welfare, then earned her degree from Tel Aviv University in social work. She said that at UGA she aims to share her personal story with the students.
“I want to have the chance to share the experience of the conflict and the complicated situation in Israel as a person who grew up in it, so that Jews around the world will have information other than what they see in the media,” she said, addressing criticisms of Israel’s government and policies. “I see the Israel fellows as an opportunity to pass on the values on which I was brought up to Jews that only know Israel from afar.”
All three Israel fellows said it will take a little while to adjust to college life. One of the biggest challenges is getting inside the minds of American college students to relate to them better. “It’s so different from the college life in Israel,” Ben Eliyahu said. “I had no idea before what Greek life is.”
“We make them ask questions. Make them think. We are here to hear them and hear their opinions and challenge them,” Sazonov said.
Having more Israel fellows in Georgia means more opportunities to work with the community, and the three urge anyone to contact them through the Jewish Agency or Hillels of Georgia.
“It’s great to wake up in the morning with a smile and do something you love,” Sazonov said.