Posted by: Ralph Grunewald, Executive Vice President on 1/30/2007 3:05:00 PM
I recently returned from my 21st trip to Israel. But this was my first time on a Hillel trip, and the experience was phenomenal.
Here are a few of my many impressions:
• At Kibbutz Ein Gev, students from around the world spent a magical Shabbat, joined together by our Torah, our heritage, and our love for Israel and Klal Yisrael. As we sat on the eastern shore of the Kinneret, overlooking Tiberias across the lake, we saw the sun set and experienced the start of Shabbat. As Jennifer Gubitz, the Hochberg Israel Education Fellow at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, and others led us in song, we all felt connected with the land of Israel and one another. Over the next 25 hours, we learned, sang, danced, and made many new friends. Havdallah was especially beautiful, as candles flickered, prayers were recited, and voices joined in song as we all swayed together as one family to usher in the new week.
• In Ramot, hugging the western slope of the Golan Heights, and after attending an avant-garde theatrical presentation on the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their children, our students struggled mightily to make sense of what they saw. They tried very hard to overcome a performance marked by poor lighting, sound, and staging. Emotions were high as students tried to decompress from this troubling and at-times confusing artistic piece. They learned that Israel is a complex nation with a wide variety of artistic, as well as political and cultural, expressions, and that far from being perfect, the nation confronts its societal shortcomings forthrightly and honestly, and sometimes brutally so.
• Later that evening – and into the wee hours of the morning – another group’s discussion evolved into a wide-ranging and deep discussion with their Israeli counterparts who took part in the trip, all of whom had already completed their army service and were now attending Israeli universities. It was remarkable to witness the honest dialogue in which the foreign students tried to grapple with some of Israel’s most pressing social, geopolitical, and military challenges – and particularly how Israel was compelled to wage war in Lebanon last summer in civilian areas. There were disagreements at times, and many arguments from the Israelis were imbued with deep patriotism of a sort that has no parallel on U.S. campuses. As the Israeli students spoke about the necessity to protect their families and neighbors from hostile enemies, the U.S. students struggled to understand what it meant to be a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, and the ethical dilemmas soldiers face as they confront mortal danger to themselves and their comrades-in-arms.
• In Kiryat Shmona, Hillel President Wayne Firestone, Chief Financial Officer Aryeh Furst, many other colleagues, and I joined 550 students in a memorable day-long event surrounding the Leading Up North trips sponsored by the Chalres and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Kiryat Shmona, a town of 24,000 people, was at the epicenter of weeks of Katyusha attacks during the war this past summer. While the physical damage has been largely repaired, the emotional damage – especially among the children – remains. We began the day planting trees to reforest a section of land adjacent to nearby Kibbutz Kfar Giladi that was destroyed by the incessant hail of deadly rockets. Planting a tree in the soil of our ancient land is a truly moving experience, and one these students will not soon forget. It was quite a sight to see hundreds of students spread over an entire hillside planting saplings as the majestic, bright-white, snow-covered Mt. Hermon loomed in the distance.
• Later, we attended a ceremony in the city auditorium where the mayor greeted us, saying: “For every single home that was destroyed by the rockets, we must build 10 new ones. For every tree that was destroyed, we must plant 100.” He embodies the proud and brave Israelis who continue to build their lives in the shadow of Hizbullah and enemies who are literally on the other side of the mountains surrounding the city.
• Lynn Schusterman, the irrepressible co-chair of Hillel’s International Board of Governors, spoke to the students in an auditorium abuzz with excitement. As the backer of this effort to paint bomb shelters in the north and to work with the children and the community at-large, Lynn was greeted with thunderous applause in a deeply-felt display of affection. She is a pioneering philanthropist who fully understands the importance of providing opportunities for young Jews to embrace their heritage and Israel. By the time the event ended, students were rollicking in the aisles, and dancing on the stage, expressing their joy at having taken part in such a wonderful Tzedek project.
• We then visited some of the bomb shelters that the students painted; they were transformed from stark spaces into rooms surrounded by walls filled with bright colors, animals, flowers, and balloons. A teacher at the Danciger School where we toured, and which was hit by five Hizbullah rockets in August, stated, “One of the little children said to me that she was fearful of the shelters during the war, but if she had to return, she would no longer be afraid.” Indeed, if we can help even one child confront the stark realities of being under attack, we have done an incomparable mitzvah.
• The day in Kiryat Shmona ended with a series of events for the community as part of the “Festival B’Shekel” – where families need only pay a single shekel (about 25 cents) to attend events. We first visited the Kol Nidrei Community Center, where many of the U.S. students dressed up as clowns, elephants, jesters, princesses, and other assorted characters, and juggled, played the drums, painted faces, did magic tricks, and lifted the spirits of hundreds of little children. The day culminated in a large concert featuring local bands and the popular Israeli rock group, Hadag Nahash. It was a memorable day for all of us.
• Later in the week, at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Aryeh Furst, Hillel Israel director Yossie Goldman, and I met with several remarkable students who are among the Hillel leaders on campus. The IDC is a world-class, private university with 3,600 students, of whom 600 are from 44 nations outside of Israel, speaking more than 25 different languages. What unites all of them is their heritage, though many of the Israeli students have grown up in secular homes, where they do not celebrate Shabbat, keep kosher, or even attend a synagogue on Yom Kippur and other holidays. Yet these Israelis consider themselves Jewish – and it is Hillel’s unique role at the IDC to expose the Israeli students (and international students) to innovate programming that provides religious and cultural activities on a campus where there are virtually no other clubs or student organizations that fulfill this important function.
• With the help of a very supportive administration, led by Jonathan Davis, dean of the Recanati International School, Hillel plays a truly unique role at the IDC. One student, Sara Nigri, from Turkey, is among the leaders. She was badly injured when terrorists set off a bomb in her synagogue in Istanbul a few years ago, and she stayed amid the chaos and wreckage for several hours following the attack to assist the other wounded worshipers. Last summer, one of her best friends was killed in the war in Lebanon. Despite these tragic events, Sara believes she must be active in Hillel so that Hillel can become a place that welcomes a diversity of students. Arkady, an immigrant from Russia, told me, “We must have a strong Hillel so that Israelis can understand the importance of their religion and culture, and how we are all connected as Jews.”
• At Independence Hall, in Tel Aviv, where the Jewish state was declared in May 1948, students sat in the same auditorium where David Ben-Gurion pronounced the re-establishment of our homeland after thousands of years. Students learned about the inconceivable odds against the young state as seven Arab armies fought against poorly-equipped and poorly-trained Jews who understood that to loose the war was simply not an option. We heard a recording of Ben-Gurion’s voice proudly proclaim the Declaration of Independence and that the new nation would be known as Medinat Yisrael, followed by the reciting of the shehechiyanu by a rabbi, and then the playing of “Hatikva” by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. We all stood when we heard the strains of the national anthem, and applauded as the last note was played. We then exited the museum into the vibrancy and bustle of modern-day Tel Aviv.
• Our president emeritus, Avraham Infeld, spoke to a gathering of 700 Hillel birthright israel students at the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus. At times using humor, and at times in great seriousness, and with students applauding throughout his speech, Avraham spoke movingly and personally about what it means to be a Jew. He urged the students – no matter what their background, level of knowledge, or religious identification – to embrace at least three of five elements that define Jews: Jewish memory; the Jewish people; our Jewish laws and teachings; the land of Israel and the people of Israel; and the Hebrew language. It was a fitting address to these students, who had all embraced these five elements in one way or another during their trip to Israel. For many, Avraham’s speech pulled together the experiences and emotions they had felt in Israel. They understood that this trip to their Jewish homeland was not only a physical one, but a spiritual journey that linked them to their history and their people.
Finally, I wanted to mention the essential role played by our colleagues in organizing and managing the dozens of groups who are here. Hillel professionals from around the world volunteered to recruit students and staff this effort, spending weeks away from their families. Andrea Hoffman did yeoman’s work with the Taglit-birthright groups, and Director of Student Life in Israel Esther Abramowitz was superb in her handling of literally thousands of details over the course of several weeks. Our staff here in Israel is terrific, and Yossie Goldman and his Hillel colleagues on the campuses throughout the country are all playing critically important roles in transforming the lives of Israeli and international students.
Our colleagues worked tirelessly, often confronting difficult situations with little sleep. While a trip to Israel is exhilarating and meaningful – especially as we witness Israel emerging for the first time through the eyes of first-time visitors – the work can take a heavy physical and emotional toll. We should all be grateful for the dedication of our colleagues, and Kol Hakovod for their wonderful efforts!
RE: Seeing Israel Anew for the 21st Time
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