Jason Pressberg first visited the Western Wall two years ago, but he was disappointed that it failed to invoke a powerful reaction in him. But after many discussions about Jewish identity and peoplehood during Hillel's recent Jewish pluralism and learning mission to Israel, he found that the ancient wall had a much different effect.
"This time I felt that connection and passion a Jew feels for that place," said Pressberg, a senior at Elon University.
More than 300 Jewish students have also strengthened their emotional ties to the Jewish homeland after participating in one of Hillel's Student Leadership Missions to Israel over the past two weeks. The 10-day missions gave the campus and Hillel student leaders an intensive look at several aspects of Israeli society through four tracks: tzedek (social justice), Jewish pluralism and learning, business and technology and, together with AIPAC, advanced advocacy.
Though they followed separate itineraries during the week, the students from all four tracks gathered at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shores of the Kinneret for a relaxing Shabbaton. They also joined hundreds of students from around the world to learn about long-term Israel programs at the Global Israel Showcase, sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Students on the tzedek mission began their journey learning about the social problems that many disadvantaged communities in Israel face, such as hunger, homelessness and economic insecurity. After briefings with local leaders and economic experts, participants split into four groups to volunteer in communities of Ethiopians, Bedouin, senior citizens and children of foreign workers.
Cheryl Pruce, a sophomore at Stanford University, lived in an Ethiopian community for three days, where she painted houses, worked in a soup kitchen and sorted clothes and furniture at a second-hand store. Her experiences not only brought her greater understanding of the obstacles Israeli Ethiopians face, but also greater appreciation for the Jewish homeland.
"The last few days have been really meaningful," she said. "The more we're learning, the more we come to love the country. We're really seeing what Israel is about."
"While the tasks themselves are helpful, I think what's most informative is communicating one on one with the community members," said MIT graduate student Ari Shapiro, who also worked with the Ethiopians. "I'm really fascinated by the different experiences people have and how that influences their life decisions and other people."
Read more about the tzedek mission from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Jewish pluralism and learning
The pluralism track gave participants the tools to explore their Jewish identity and place in the Jewish community with a variety of activities inside and outside the classroom. Visits to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and non-denominational learning institutions and rabbinical schools were complemented by a desert hike and trip to Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"It was really interesting to start our mission by looking at an ancient community and compare it to our modern communities," said Katie Feldman, a sophomore at Northwestern University.
For many participants, this was the first opportunity they spent a significant amount of time with students who observe Judaism in different ways from their own. The discussions they had among themselves, and with the students and faculty from the study centers they visited, helped them understand and appreciate the diversity of the Jewish people.
"I now feel free to develop faith and identity within the confines of Judaism instead of in the confines of Reform Judaism," Pressberg said.
Hillel-AIPAC advanced advocacy
Meetings with the prime minister's offices, visit to Israel's renowned think tanks and workshops with top political strategists were all part of a day's work for students on the Hillel-AIPAC advanced advocacy mission.
"It's been an amazing opportunity to access the political institutions of Jerusalem and bring the innovative brand of Israel to our campuses," said Brandeis University sophomore Jacob Baime.
Among the highlights for Cornell University junior Sarah Boxer was a panel discussion with three journalists from the New York Times, CNN and the Chicago Tribune who cover Israeli news.
"Listening to those journalists speak was so enlightening. I can't imagine another time when I could listen to people of their stature together like that," she said.
Business and technology
For Diana Kassen, a Middlebury College senior majoring in neuroscience and minoring in economics, the business and technology mission was a perfect fit. The track combined visits to Israel's leading research institutions, such as the Technion and Weizmann Institute of Science, with meetings with the venture capitalists who are helping to strengthen Israel's high-tech sector.
"It was really cool hearing from the speakers that Israel has so much potential and growth," she said.
"It was the first time I was able to see Israel as a technological powerhouse," agreed Zach Schapira, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
A highlight for many of the students was a trip to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, where they met with Hillel International Board of Governors member Stacy Schusterman.
"It sparked some serious interest among the students to invest in the Israeli market," said Ronnie Gul, a second-year MBA student at UCLA. "Investing in it isn't only charity anymore. People are making serious money doing it."
Participants also took advantage of the networking opportunities the mission afforded and began incubating new ideas to bring back to the United States, such as creating a Web site to connect American and Israeli students who are interested in technology. The eight Penn students are considering starting an Israel investment club, according to Schapira.