Former Hillel President Avraham Infeld poses for a picture with students from Hillel Rio.
When Lindsey Napchen arrived in Israel this past December, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated. As part of Hillel’s Jewish Peoplehood and Pluralism Mission to Israel, the University of Massachusetts student joined a two-bus group filled with 84 students from 10 different countries. And she knew no one.
“I was among a group of people from all over the world, with different agendas, different values, different history, different languages, and the only thing we had in common was the fact that we were all Jewish people. But what did that even mean?” questioned Napchen.
In winters’ past, a pluralism track had been offered as a Hillel mission to Israel, but this year’s Jewish Peoplehood and Pluralism trip had a new twist. For the first time, students from outside North America would be on the trip. A group of 42 students from the United States and Canada were joined by 42 students from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Italy, reflecting the current and future status of the Jewish people while exploring the Jewish past.
The trip created a unique opportunity for the students to examine their Jewish identity and grapple with notions of pluralism from religious and cultural perspectives.
However, the trip also created some unique challenges. A language barrier was at the forefront. All sessions were conducted in English which posed some problems for the non-native speakers. It also led to frustration and arguments within the group. But on the last day of the trip, the native Portuguese, Spanish and Russian speaking staff turned the tables on the native English speakers. They gave directions for a project first in their native tongues before using English. The English speakers were then able to understand some of the frustrations of their fellow students.
Cultural and political differences also led to various discussions ranging from the use of musical equipment on Shabbat to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Emily Einhorn, a student from Wesleyan, commented after the trip: “Personally, I had never met a Jew from the South, let alone Latin America or the Former Soviet Union. Speaking to all sorts of different Jews, both religiously and culturally, gave me the opportunity to really think about my own Jewish identity and what factors influence the way I express my Judaism on a day to day basis.”
Participants were exposed to facets of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood beyond the range of their everyday experience. It challenged the students to broaden their understanding and question their assumptions of what it means to be Jewish. Speakers such as Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Re'ut Institute, Yossie Goldman, Hillel in Israel associate vice president and director; and Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel were brought in to engage students in a discussion of what it means to be Jewish in today’s global society and the role that Hillel can play.
Moreover, the students worked together to identify some of the major challenges and opportunities that the Jewish people will face over the next several decades. They began to think about how they would work within and across their communities to address these issues effectively.
The students felt the biggest challenges to the Jewish people were assimilation, internal divisions within Judaism, openness of Judaism, anti-Semitism and Jewish education. For each of these challenges the students divided into groups to brainstorm possible solutions. They then presented their ideas and projects to the group. Some unique ideas were birthright trips for interfaith families, a Jewish education teachers' corps and a number of different global student exchange programs.
The students returned to campus forever changed. They know they are part of a people much larger than themselves and their responsibilities extend far beyond their individual campuses. The students also internalized the strength that is inherent in pluralistic environments and they have pledged to create those experiences for their peers.
In a thank-you letter to the trip’s staff, Russian student Eugenia Pipenko wrote, “I hope more youth will have such a great opportunity to break the limits of understanding Judaism like I did.”
“I came onto this trip expecting to be so comfortable being a Hillel leader. I never expected to be pushed so far out of my comfort zone,” wrote Sara Lewis, a Rutgers University junior, in another thank-you letter. “I’ve never really had a chance to interact with international students and the experience opened my eyes to the worldwide Jewish community.”