No Hillel group ever concluded its Taglit-birthright israel tour more dramatically than the 40 students on Bus 549.
Worshiping in a makeshift synagogue in a hotel in the town of Tiberias, the group began their Shabbat by celebrating the bar mitzvah of several students who had never before been called to the Torah as adults. It was a fitting end to a journey of Jewish discovery.
But soon after the celebration ended, the group was sent to the hotel’s bomb shelter: Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon had defied all predictions and had landed in this city by the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. When the situation quieted, the young people were allowed to pack and head south toward the airport.
Later, in a closing conversation held in Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean, the young people reflected on their experience. "The human spirit of our group and the way we stuck together in the bomb shelter was amazing," said one. "My faith got stronger as the rockets fell."
"I've come to the conclusion that Israelis are nuts. Totally crazy," said another. "If they are nuts, then I'll be nuts, too. Singing peace songs and telling jokes in a bomb shelter."
Bus 549, comprising students from four Southern California schools, were the last of 1400 Hillel students who participated in spring/summer Taglit-birthright Israel trips. Among the participants this summer were 160 students from the former Soviet Union. To date, Hillel has brought more than 25,000 students on the program.
Hillel is in constant contact with security officials whenever it brings groups to Israel, in times of peace as well as turbulence. Safety and security are Hillel's utmost concerns. When the situation changes, so do the students' itineraries, as University of Oregon students found out.
University of Oregon Hillel Executive Director Hal Applebaum was hiking with students in the Galilee when a planned lunch in the border town of Kiryat Shemona was cancelled for security reasons. They later heard artillery fire from the direction of Lebanon. Applebaum used the day's event as an opportunity to teach about contemporary Middle East politics, and ancient Jewish ties.
"The students’ Taglit-birthright israel trip certainly strengthened their connection to the Jewish people, to the State of Israel and to the dilemmas our people face as we search for a peace that seems more elusive than ever," he said. "I have no doubt that when they hear the phrase ‘pray for the peace of Israel,’ it has a deeper meaning for each of them than they ever imagined before."