Maya Harpaz, the leader of pro-Israel clubs at the University of Pennsylvania, knew that fellow Jewish students were concerned about the Palestine Writes Festival from Sept. 22-24. It was an event celebrating Palestinian culture but also amplifying anti-Israel voices such as former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters.
What kind of elements would this bring to campus?
To be safe, Harpaz organized a meeting with Penn’s head of public safety, another representative from the university and Rachel Saifer, the director of operations for Penn Hillel. The university officials assured Harpaz and Saifer that they would keep watch over Hillel, Jewish-affiliated buildings and fraternities and sororities. Hillel and Jewish spaces are always a top priority for them, they said.
“That was something she initiated,” Saifer said of Harpaz. “I think it was just reassuring students that the university was on this.”
Penn Hillel was vandalized the day before the festival started. But no one was injured, and Penn Public Safety apprehended the perpetrator. Then the festival passed without incident.
Harpaz, 19, joined many of her fellow Jewish students at a Hillel-organized Shabbat dinner on Sept. 22. They wanted to show solidarity during an event with anti-Israel speakers.
It was not an event that Harpaz organized. But many such gatherings on Penn’s campus are. The junior, who is concentrating her studies on public policy and governance, tries to get real-world experience, too.
She has served as the vice president of Israel engagement for Hillel since January. She is also serving as a communications director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Women’s Leadership Council, which engages female students nationwide. During the 2020 presidential election, she managed a team of volunteers working to elect Joe Biden in her home state of Florida.
“She’s a leader. She’s articulate. Very mature. And presents herself beautifully,” Saifer said.
Harpaz is interested in public policy in general. But Israel may be her No. 1 issue.
Her father was born there but moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was three. His extended family still lives in the Tel Aviv area. When Harpaz was growing up, she had a bat mitzvah ceremony in Israel and visited on other occasions.
By the time she completed an eight-week internship in Israel with Birthright’s Onward program this past summer, Harpaz realized something. In America, “Jews are the minority, and you have to go out of your way to celebrate and be Jewish,” she said. But in Israel, “You don’t have to go to services to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.”
“The streets are empty,” Harpaz added.
The Penn student joined the Hillel student leadership board when she arrived on campus. Through the group, she learned about PIPAC, the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee. Harpaz joined that, too, and started meeting with members of Congress and traveling to Washington, D.C., to discuss issues relating to Israel.
Two issues stand out above others: securing U.S. funding for Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In some conversations, the student and her PIPAC colleagues help raise awareness among members of Congress.
“I’m drawn to understanding how governments work, how things get changed,” Harpaz said.
At the first PIPAC meeting Harpaz attended a couple of years ago, there were fewer than 10 people. Today, she runs the club. And at recent meetings, there were more than 30 students.
The junior reached out to people individually. She texted them, took them out for coffee and invited them to events.
“That personal relationship is important,” Harpaz said.
Last year, she organized a talk by Ted Deutch, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee and former congressman from Florida. The student leader got 80 people to show up.
“It was an incredibly successful evening,” Saifer said.
When Penn Hillel needed someone to speak in public about the Palestine Writes Festival, it chose Harpaz, a student. She said she didn’t want to see the event canceled. But she did join a chorus of other Jewish community leaders who called on the university to condemn the speakers who had made anti-Israel remarks in the past.
Penn’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill, its provost, John L. Jackson, and arts and sciences dean, Steven J. Fluharty, obliged.
“We unequivocally — and emphatically — condemn antisemitism as antithetical to our institutional values,” they said.
Harpaz wants to go to law school when she graduates.
“I think being a lawyer is a way you can make change and advocate for people. Advocate for causes that you’re passionate about,” she said.