After enduring long, hot days and little sleep in a foreign land, the students aboard Birthright Bus 747 were losing steam.
Initially energized for the once in a lifetime opportunity to explore Israel for free, courtesy of Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Hillel students had done a lot of walking, standing and sweating by the time they reached Mt. Herzl, the national cemetery that honors Israeli soldiers.
Hillel students at Mt. Herzl.
Staff member Dave Furman, a Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps (JCSC) fellow from Miami University in Ohio, had accompanied the students every step of the way. As the hours and days wore on, students were getting restless and chatty. When he noticed their interest waning at Mt. Herzl, he felt compelled to connect them with the sacred space. He brought them to the grave of Michael Levin.
In an email to Hillel's Taglit-Birthright Israel Director Andrea Hoffman, Dave Furman recounted the experience:
"We had been at the site for over an hour, and my students really weren't feeling Mt. Herzl. That is, until we reached the graves of the Second Lebanon War. Three things happened there to change my students’ impression of the cemetery and of Israel.
"Mike Levin was my roommate on USY High (high school program sponsored by United Synagogue Youth), and we went on Nativ (post-high school experience abroad) together too. Mikey was a friend of mine. This was only the second time I had been to his grave. As difficult as it is, I find it very important to tell Mikey's story, how he got to Israel, what he believed in, and why my students should care. I got quite emotional and started crying, and as I looked around, I noticed that most of the students were crying as well. As I neared the end of my story, one of the students spoke up and said 'actually, Mike was my cousin.' I think this moment really cemented the idea of Jewish family in all of my students’ minds. Many of the students who had been chattering and joking through the first hour of our tour of Mt. Herzl were now openly crying and hugging each other. Everyone was silent.
IDF soldier with Hillel student at Mt. Herzl.
"As we moved to the more recent graves, we saw a middle-aged woman kneeling down, crying to herself. She spoke quickly to our tour educator, and asked to speak to our students. It turned out that she was kneeling at the grave of her son, Oz, who had also been killed during the Second Lebanon War. She told my students the story of her son, of his life, of his love for Israel. She recounted how he fell attempting to rescue other soldiers who were stranded in a wounded tank. And then she told the students something they would repeat for the rest of the trip: 'Don't think of yourself as the same as everyone else, because they don't think of you that way.'
"She told them over and over again that just because [we] live in the United States, it doesn't mean that Israel isn't [our] country and it doesn't mean that [we] aren't family."
Standing at her son's grave, Furman recalls the poignant silence he experienced as each of the Israeli soldiers accompanying Bus 747 shared a moment with the grieving mother.
"And in this silence, my students and I watched as another young group of Israelis walked up to a freshly dug grave, sat down, lit yahrtzeit candles, and began to cry. They had come to pay respect to a friend of theirs who had died serving the Israeli Defense Forces just a few months before. This moment truly cemented the power of the cemetery and the pain of being an Israeli. A truly Meaningful Jewish Experience."
Meanwhile, Taglit-Birthright Israel participants from Bus 751, who returned to the States on June 4, are already doing homework as follow-up to their trip. Their staff leaders, Dan Yagudin, program director at University of Miami Hillel and Jackie Tolley, director of Hillel at San Diego State University, have asked all 40 students to determine how they want to spend $30 enriching their personal Jewish journey.
As Dan Yagudin explains, three Hillel students, Charlie Levinson of University of Miami, David Levit of Princeton University and Michael Toubi of SDSU volunteered to help make a minyan (Jewish law requires 10 Jews be present for formal prayer) while on the plane between New York and Tel Aviv. In a show of appreciation, one member of the minyan gifted the group $400. At his insistance, the money was to be spent "on the students" and "for tzedek (charity/justice)."
Upon their return home, Yagudin and Tolley matched the money with funds from their respective Hillels. In total, the group has divided $1,200 among each of the participants to be spent on "furthering their Jewishness."
"We've been getting a lot of great feedback from the students," says Yagudin. "Some will spend the money on taking online Hebrew courses or books on tape. Others, like a few film students, are interested in buying Israeli films and are looking to further their knowledge of Judaism in the context of their future professions. What's exciting about all this is that we're giving unlimited Birthright follow-through choices to a generation that's used to having 3,000 songs to choose from in their iPods."
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