This piece was originally featured on the Hillel Israel blog. Learn more about the Israeli StudenTour here.
My name is Avihay Cahani and I am a third year student in Economics and Management at Ben-Gurion University.
For several years now I have been exploring the Israel-Diaspora Jewry relationship through seminars and conferences in which I participate and projects of which I am part. That's why, when I came across Hillel Israel's Facebook post about the Israeli StudenTour visiting Hillel centers across the US East Coast, I knew that I really wanted to be a part of that experience. After successfully completing the selection process, I was selected to represent Hillel at Ben-Gurion University in Hillel's StudenTour which included ten students from different Hillel centers across Israel.
What most fascinated me about this opportunity was the idea that the purpose of the delegation was not to do Israel Advocacy or officially represent the State of Israel. Rather, we simply tried to bring our personal and national story and connect to the stories of the students we met. Basically, we were just expected to sit down and talk with Jewish students, one on one, about our life and theirs as students and as Jews, on different sides of the world. In ten days we visited seven campuses, and at each Hillel we met with the students for discussions on the Jewish People, on Israel and everything in between.
For some reason, I was expecting to find a sleepy community, one that does not care too much about the State of Israel in particular or the Jewish People in general. I realized that many American students care a lot about Israel and things that are happening in our country. I encountered a lot of students who are very involved in the political and economic realities in Israel, through Israel Advocacy or through Israel groups that focus on the non-political/conflict related aspects of Israel such as Israeli culture, science and more. Another thing I liked is that I didn't only hear good things about Israel; there was also some criticism and I had the opportunity to listen to a different side than my own. I came across a wide range of opinions which are not commonly heard in Israel in our day to day life. Because we had the opportunity to talk, in person and in a safe and open environment, I realized the tremendous effect of what is happening in Israel on Diaspora Jewry in general and the Jewish community in North America in particular.
Avihay (third from left) stands with part of the Israeli StudenTour delegation.
The delegation was very significant for me for two reasons: First, I never before realized the strength of our connection as Jews. We always immediately clicked with the students we met at Hillel and that quick "click" was because Judaism was something we all had in common. Another thing I realized is how easy it is for us to be Jewish in Israel, how everything is accessible and available. I met a lot of people who struggle just to get to Shabbat and Holiday meals, not to mention a prayer experience on Shabbat or the ability to buy kosher food.
The other thing is I came across were all sorts of stories about anti-Semitism and various types of boycotts like BDS. I heard about someone who was cursed and spat at just because he carried the Israeli flag while walking at his college in New York. To an Israeli like me, these stories sound very far away from us, because we live in a Jewish State and feel we are protected. For some people these experiences are not uncommon, but despite them and the feeling somewhat unsafe, they still continue to fight for what they believe and voice their opinion.
The difficulty of living as a Jew in the Diaspora reinforced for me the tremendous importance of the Diaspora Jewry.
Avihay Cahani is a third year student in Economics and Management at Ben-Gurion University.