Stanford University sophomore Cheryl Pruce has traveled to Israel three times before, but her fourth time, with Hillel's Student Leadership Missions this winter, was really the charm.
"The more we're learning, the more we come to love the country. We're really seeing what Israel is all about," she said.
Pruce was one of more than 300 Hillel and campus leaders from North America who got an up-close-and-personal view of the Jewish homeland during their winter break. Unlike the Taglit-birthright israel program, which serves as an introduction to the sights and sounds of Israel, Hillel missions allow students to explore varied aspects of Israeli society in depth. Students chose one of four tracks – tzedek (social justice), Jewish pluralism and learning, business and technology and, with AIPAC, advanced advocacy – for most of the trip, but they all gathered together for a Shabbaton at Kibbutz Ein Gev and the Jewish Agency for Israel's Global Israel Showcase.
Students on the tzedek mission heard firsthand perspectives from representatives of Israel's disadvantaged communities, such as the Ethiopians, Bedouin and foreign workers, about the obstacles they face. Later in the week they spent three days volunteering among these communities, doing tasks such as painting houses and working in soup kitchens.
"The last few days have been really meaningful," said Pruce, who worked with the Ethiopian community.
Participants on the Jewish pluralism mission mined the riches on the wide spectrum of learning institutions in Israel, from Orthodox yeshivot to the Reform rabbinical school and non-denominational study centers. Not only did their meetings with the students and faculty help them appreciate the diversity of the Jewish people, but so did their conversations with their fellow students, who came from a range of backgrounds and traditions.
"Meeting Orthodox students was one of the best learning experiences I've ever had," said Jason Pressberg, a senior at Elon University.
The business and technology track schedule was filled with visits to Israel's top research institutions, such as the Technion and Weizmann Institute of Science, and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Students valued the opportunities they had to meet with venture capitalists and business leaders in Israel's burgeoning high-tech industry.
"The people we met share a bond with Jews beyond that of business. I think they'd be accessible to us in the future for networking and advice," said Ronnie Gul, a second-year MBA student at UCLA.
Students on the advanced advocacy mission were equally impressed with the access they had to Israeli government officials, political strategists and scholars throughout their trip. Highlights included meetings with the prime minister's office, a visit to a Jewish-Arab co-existence center, a tour of the Green Line and a panel discussion with the Israeli correspondents from top American media.
"It really gave me the ultimate inside's perspective on current affairs in Israel and the way this government operates," said Brandeis University sophomore Jacob Baime.