Posted by: Wayne L. Firestone, President on 1/29/2009 2:10:00 PM
On the first days of Hillel’s Alternative Winter Break trips to Israel in late December, the 168 undergraduate and graduate students who came to do community service from more than a dozen campuses quickly learned how “alternative” their trip would be when some of their Israeli security escorts received text messages calling them to their army reserve units.
This is the stark reality of life in Israel, and a reality that thousands of North American students who have returned to campus have come to understand. Participants in our alternative break trip volunteered in the Tel Chaim Community Center in Petah Tikvah preparing care packages for kids living in bomb shelters. Others worked with the deaf and blind community, undocumented foreign workers, refugees, Ethiopian community centers and more. Tellingly, after the program ended (and the ground invasion had already commenced) a majority of the students elected to extend their stays. Two Penn law students continued to work on service projects with Holocaust survivors and prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
Just a few weeks before, North American students had joined our Board leadership on a visit to Sderot during the November United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Israel. That trip drove home the reason Israel had to take action in Gaza: We viewed row upon row of missile casings that had been collected during years of Hamas bombardment. Our Hillel activists at Sapir College in Sderot responded to the rocket fire by rallying the nation to their cause and helping their community. They collected used clothing and household items from across Israel to distribute to students and community members, many of whom are needy immigrants, from a free warehouse on campus. It was a living, breathing tzedaka box. After we left Sderot, daily bombings escalated to more than 30 a day. When the full-scale conflict broke out in January, Sapir students fanned out across their city with movies and projectors to bring light into the lives of children living in bomb shelters. After the hostilities ended, they collected humanitarian supplies for the citizens of Gaza.
Our North American students did not have to put on a uniform but they returned to North America to defend Israel in the classroom and on the quad. Rallies and vigils have been conducted across North America in which student activists have spoken out for Israel and peace. These young people have also told their stories to their peers – not on CNN or The New York Times, but rather in campus newspapers , Facebook, blogs, and YouTube. They shared their pride in their new Israeli friends and family in a way that is unlikely to be seen in the mainstream press but may be more effective: For this generation, the messenger is often more important than the message. Two of those online messengers accompanied me to inauguration events in Washington.
The students tell their stories not as political scientists or ideologues but as young people who have an intimate knowledge of their peers on the front lines. They relay Israel’s need to defend its citizens, its profound desire for peace, and its effort to avoid bloodshed. The soldiers they see on their television screens in the U.S. are not the anonymous, callous monsters that are depicted by Israel’s enemies but the caring, young citizen-soldiers who joined them on their trips, who drove their buses, who joined them on service projects. They know that these people go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties, even if it puts their own lives at risk.
University of Virginia students Jenny Klein and Ally Dreiman, participants in Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trips, shared their stories online. During their recent tour they visited Mount Herzl, the national Israeli cemetery that honors soldiers and political leaders. “Considering the current situation in Gaza, the experience was particularly powerful for us,” they wrote on their blog site. “The Israelis who have been accompanying us for the past few days shared a few thoughts about their friends who have recently been called for duty. Tal, Shani and Yaron reminded us that the graves we saw are not just graves from past wars; they are reminders of the perpetual struggle to protect Israel. Our tour guide, Gadi, made an especially striking comment before we left: He said that for him and many other Israelis, the open spaces are more depressing than the existing graves because they are the spaces to be filled in the future.”
That is a sad realization for an Israeli barely in his 20s and a hard lesson in modern Jewish history for an American student. These students have an intimate sense of the cost of war. Their prayers for peace – for people on both sides of the border -- are heartfelt.
Our immersive experiences are intended to be a meaningful Jewish experience whose impact will last a lifetime. These students will never forget their encounter with Israel or the young people, their friends, who defend its borders.
A version of this story appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
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