Hagar Ben-Bassat, the new Israel Fellow at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, was delighted when the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates Israeli emissaries for a number of programs worldwide, gave her permission to come to Tucson despite the global coronavirus pandemic.
Although it was a long process as circumstances kept evolving, she says, “They always told us, this is going to happen. If the Hillel wants you, you are going to go.”
Ben-Bassat, who is 25 and a graduate of Tel Aviv University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy, arrived in mid-September. She has been working with students mostly virtually, holding Zoom coffee meetings and Shabbat “zinners” (Zoom with dinner). But she has met some students in person — outdoors, wearing facemasks, and keeping at least six feet apart. She’s trying to get to know every student involved with Hillel.
Sophomore Lauren Bander notes that Ben-Bassat actually started working for UA Hillel about a month before she came to the U.S., although it meant coping with a nine-hour difference in time zones. “I commend her so much for that. She changed her schedule way ahead of time to be able to come to our events, virtually of course.
“Actually, while she was still in Israel, I was the first student to contact her, because I am in charge of a lot of the pro-Israel programming here at the University of Arizona,” says Bander, who is majoring in political science and global studies. “I thought it was kind of my job to get to know the Israel Fellow first, and then Hagar and I just definitely clicked. We’re becoming fast friends.”
Pride in her country inspired Ben-Bassat to apply for an Israel Fellowship. “I think it is very important to connect Jewish people from out of Israel to Israel, because I think Israel should be the place that all Jews should feel they belong to, and connected to.
“Most of the people don’t know a lot about Israel, and make a lot of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true,” she says, such as that Israel is a dangerous place.
She says visitors to Israel often are surprised that it is not dangerous to walk on the streets.
“We’re not this problem that comes up every election,” she adds. “We’re a real country, with real people and real culture.”
Ben-Bassat describes her hometown of Petah Tikva, a Tel Aviv suburb, as a great city in which to grow up. “It’s like a really big neighborhood,” she says, where people are always willing to help each other. Off the tourist path, Petah Tikva is known for being home to the largest children’s hospital in the Middle East, Schneider Children’s Medical Center.
For her military service, Ben-Bassat spent two years as a nuclear-biological-chemical instructor in the combat engineering forces.
“My army service was the most amazing service I could have ever asked for. I taught soldiers how to defend themselves from chemical weapons on the battlefield,” she says.
She recalls one soldier who told her, after he finished a commander’s course, that he did not know what he would have done without her. “It was really important to me that my students will succeed, so I sat with them in the middle of the night, before tests, and on the buses to our next mission, I would sit with them and go through the drills, make sure they know what they’re doing,”
That experience started her on a path to become an educator. She studied political science in college, motivated by a high school course on democracy around the world.
Working in informal education confirmed her decision to focus on education. She worked for four years as a counselor at a youth center, “and fell in love with the kids, and fell in love with the system. I continued my political science because it was interesting, but my passion is education,” she explains.
Ben-Bassat plans to continue her own education when she returns to Israel after her U.S. sojourn, with “a different and better perspective.”
Connect with Ben-Bassat at (520) 624-6561 or [email protected].