Odelia Shalev, Director of Hillel at Ben-Gurion University, gathered participant and staff reflections on the Alternative Spring Break Peoplehood Trip to Uruguay earlier this month. The project was a unique collaboration between Hillel Montreal, Hillel at Ben-Gurion University and Hillel Uruguay, aiming to build personal, long-term relationships between participating students from the three communities, understanding that personal relationships are the basis for continuity and Jewish Peoplehood in the future. This program was also supported by the CJA and Partnership Together Montreal—Beer Sheva/Bnei Shimon.
A few weeks ago, in early March, a group of Hillel students from Canada, Israel and Uruguay spent a week together exploring the unique vibrant Jewish community of Montevideo, volunteering in the Jewish community and in the general Uruguayan community, celebrating Purim and having meaningful discussions on Jewish life, the role of Jewish communities in our lives, the role of Israel for the Jewish People, our connection to it and more.
During the Alternative Spring Break Peoplehood Trip’s reflection session, as the Canadian and Israeli student participants were preparing to leave Uruguay and return to their own countries, the reflections were poignant.
"I gained the ability to understand my Jewishness and my connection to Judaism outside of the Israeli context and understand what it means to be Jewish in a more holistic and profound way," said one participant. Another noted, "It's remarkable that I had to come all the way to Uruguay to start reflecting on my own connection with Israel."
Alon, one of the Israeli participants in the program said, "There is one practical thing I have already taken from this experience and it's the importance and significance of the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), which I want to continue applying to my day to day life." Bina, also from Israel, reflected, "The biggest takeaway for me is that I need and want to continue this journey of learning and understanding what being Jewish really means to me. This experience for me was eye opening and the beginning of what I hope will be a long and interesting process."
A student from Canada shared, "Until now, Judaism for me was something I didn’t want to deal with and had set aside. This program and the conversations I had here made me want to continue learning and figuring out what role Judaism plays in my life."
Hillel professionals also offered their perspectives on the powerful opportunity. Alon Friedman, Hillel Israel's Director General commented, "Many young Israelis, when asked about their Jewish identity, tend to reply, 'I have none, as I am not religious.' The common equation which is engrained in the perception of so many Israelis suggests that Judaism = religion, and therefore, as long as one isn’t religious, one does not need to cultivate any Jewish identity. This often unnoticed void creates a situation in which a local discourse is being developed in Israel, and although it covers many aspects of Israeli society (including Israel’s complicated religious agendas), it entirely excludes most other references of “Jewish": Jewish Values, Jewish communities and organizations, the Jewish life-cycle, Jewish experiences, Jewish education, etc. This program allows Israeli students to have a true Peoplehood experience which will connect them to their own Jewish identity and to the Global Jewish Family."
"As for the Canadian and Uruguayan students; at Hillel, we believe that discussions on Israel’s role in one’s Jewish identity don't have to take place in Israel,” said Nati Sperber, Associate Director for Content Development and former Shlicha to Hillel Uruguay, who led the mission on behalf of the Israeli participants. “In Uruguay, the Jewish community is very Zionistic, with seven different Zionist Youth Movements and a high immigration rate to Israel (aliyah). We believe that meeting outside of Israel with a Jewish community who is so committed to the centrality of Israel is extremely meaningful to the Israeli and non-Israeli students alike, and provides opportunities for discussion on the centrality of Israel in the Jewish world."
"This program, in my opinion, demonstrates the power of being a huge global organization and the impact we can make by collaborating," added Friedman. “It was made possible only because Jeff Bicher, Executive Director of Hillel Montreal, was looking for additional "out of the box" ideas on how to engage his students in both tzedek work and engagement with Israel and was committed to creating and enabling the program. And of course, thanks to our colleagues at Hillel Uruguay who were eager to host us in their community and provide their students with the rare opportunity to show their home and community to Jews from abroad."
"Enabling students from Israel, Uruguay and Montreal to work, learn and laugh side-by-side is proof that Hillel is about Peoplehood,” concluded Jeff Bicher, “We are a global movement and a ripple on that side of the world makes waves on our side."
Pictured above: The group has Shabbat dinner with a local Jewish Uruguayan family.