Benjie Kaplan, Minnesota Hillel’s executive director, said that the increase in Israel-related programming dates back to 2014 and the formation of the Minnesota Israel Leadership Collaborative.
This award comes off of last year’s recognition of Kaplan as an “Exemplar of Excellence” in the Hillel movement.
“Interim Minneapolis Federation CEO Gil Mann was hearing something across several Jewish agencies: Israel education and engagement was going to become more and more important for our community in the years ahead,” said Kaplan. MILC was formed as a partnership between the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations, the Minneapolis Federation’s Israel Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Minnesota Hillel. “This partnership got to work right away creating campus and community Israel programs, Israel education and ensuring there was an Israeli emissary on campus.
“This award took a village, and I am thrilled at how far Minnesota Hillel has come from that initial meeting with Gil Mann, Steve Hunegs and Eilat Harel in 2014. I am hopeful that the entire community can take pride in this award and the recognition that Minnesota has one of the best Hillel’s in the country.”
Mann said pulling the organizations involved was an opportunity to incent and encourage the groups working together towards a common cause.
“It really turned out to be successful beyond our dreams,” he said. “There were all kinds of efforts that it just struck me that we were stronger than the sum of our parts if we could find a way to work together.”
In part of its now award-winning work, Kaplan said Hillel has enhanced its Israel travel opportunities for students to include five trips to Israel that take over 100 students there every year. Trips include two Birthright trips, an Alternative Spring Break in partnership with the Minneapolis Federation and their partnerships region in Rehovot, Israel, a leadership mission to Israel and Poland/Berlin, and an exploratory mission for non-Jewish student leaders on campus.
Hillel’s Israel student group, Gopher Israel, hosts 15-20 programs annually, engaging hundreds of U students with Israel. Programs have included Israel block parties, guest speakers, Israeli authors, filmmakers and musicians, Israeli cooking and food programs, and educational programs about politics and conflict in the region. Gopher Israel is made up of Hillel Israel leaders as well as interns from several partner groups including: Stand with Us, Seed the Dream/Birthright, Hasbara, AIPAC, JNF, and Israel on Campus Coalition.
Kaplan credited Idan Cohen, who finished his third year as Hillel’s Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow in June, for being instrumental in building up this collection of programs, educational opportunities, and the deep impact travel experiences.
“This speaks volumes about Benjie,” Mann said. “He’s a terrific asset to the community; a treasure that’s under the radar.”