Participating in the Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly provided a respite for Ephrat Berkin, a student at Sapir College in Sderot, Israel, the Negev town that has been the target of rocket attacks from nearby Gaza. "I live in the most dangerous kibbutz. It's between Sderot and Gaza. Rockets always fall in our land," she says. "With all of the rockets falling, I can't study, I can't go to work."
Students play drums in the Negev.
Ephrat was pleasantly surprised by the American participants. "I told the students about our life in Sderot and they were sympathetic. I expected that they would be critical of us."
Bringing student leaders together from North America, Israel, Latin America and the former Soviet Union (FSU) underscored the conference theme, "Jewish Citizenship in a Global World." The young people overcame their cultural differences to learn what they shared in common.
"It was really exciting to be with other Jewish students from around the world," said Galit Burchak of Kiev, Ukraine. "I usually just attend gatherings from the FSU. It's great to see how other student leaders solve similar problems, like the students who just want to have fun, or how to promote informal Jewish education , or how to prevent leaders from burning out."
"Our cultural differences are getting smaller the more we get to know one another," adds Bruno Braver of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "At the beginning I was timid but the more I got to know the other students, the more comfortable I was exchanging ideas."
The conference enabled students to explore leadership on different tracks: social justice, social entrepreneurship, dialogue and activism.
"We want to provide these students with meaningful Jewish experiences that will continue to enrich their lives, and their communities, when they return home," explains Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone.
Syracuse University student Alycia Hendricks participated on the social justice track.
"Last year I went on spring break with Hillel to New Orleans," she says. "It was very fulfilling. I learned about myself and New Orleans. I learned that if everyone does one small thing, it all adds up to one big thing that can make a difference."
Javier Steinberg of Buenos Aires chose to see Israel's entrepreneurial side but it was the exposure to a cross-section of Jewish communities and denominations that impressed him the most. "Hearing all the languages come together to celebrate Havdalah was the best moment of the week," he recalls. "It brought the whole Jewish family together."
Originally from Uzbekistan, Baruch College student Menashe Khaimov tried out different types of religious services for first time in his life. "I never understood the American distinctions between the denominations," he says. "After experiencing the different ways the students worshipped, I realize that I am an Orthodox Jew and that is where I am most comfortable."
Sitting at a falafel stand in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, Georgetown University student David Denker, Columbia student Ariel Pollock and University of Tennessee student Adam Schwartz compared notes about their Leaders experience. The students spent the day learning how Moslem, Christian and Jewish faiths interact in Israel. "I gained a lot of perspective about how to be more welcoming to students of all backgrounds," said David.
"I am trying to find new ways to connect Hillel with the different Israel organizations on my campus," Ariel added.
"Going to a school with a relatively small Jewish student population, I wanted to get Jewish leadership training," said Adam. "I feel reenergized."
The young people ended their day at a performance by a Moslem, Jewish and Christian dance troupe from Northern Israel. The performance illustrated tolerance among Israel's ethnic communities and cried out for broader regional peace.
In a question-and-answer session after the show, one of the Hillel students described his initial skepticism. "Before I came in I told someone that I would not like this because I disagree with the premise, I don't believe there can be cooperation," he said. "But after seeing it, you changed my mind. I cried. I want to say congratulations."
One of the performers said that the student's reaction renewed their faith in their work. "We started to work together to show that it's possible. We have to overcome many obstacles to keep going. You moved me and made me feel that it's important to continue."
Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel
Weinberg Tzedek Alternative Break in Israel
Israel on Campus Coalition Israel@60 Mission
Jerusalem Post: Hillel Students Work Renovate Refugee Shelter
Jerusalem Post: Navigating Our Flat Earth, by Wayne Firestone
Jerusalem Post: Firestone Calls for "Reverse Birthright"
Hillel wishes to thank the following foundations and individuals who made these trips possible:
- Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
- The Samuel Bronfman Foundation
- The Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation
- Jane and Alan Cornell
- Sherry and Larry Kalish
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