Students paint the doorway of a bomb shelter in Akko, Israel as part of Leading Up North.
When Valerie Carpenter first arrived in Israel at the beginning of January, she joined fellow Taglit-birthright israel participants in taking a breathtaking first look at the city of Jerusalem. It was while standing on the Tayelet, or promenade, overlooking the Old City, that Valerie felt Jewish for the very first time.
It must have been an intense moment for the West Virginia University senior, who completed her conversion to Judaism only a month prior to the trip.
"[The conversion] was very exciting but I didn't really feel Jewish," she said. "It was when we first gathered together on our way to Jerusalem and danced the hora and blessed challah and wine, that I was really able to embrace my new people and new land."
The rest of the ten-day trip would prove to be an amazing experience for Valerie, as would trips for the approximately 3000 other students participating in Taglit-birthright israel and Winter Israel Experiences in December and January.
Before arriving in Israel, Bowdoin College Senior Casey Dlott did not understand why Israel had amazed her friends and family. That all changed when she and her group were in Jerusalem. “Going to the Kotel (Western Wall) was quite the experience,” she said. “It is something you hear about your whole life but have never seen and then there it is. It was interesting how emotional I became.”
Contrary to Dlott, Matthew Friedman, a junior at the University of Vermont, came into his Taglit-birthright israel trip with very high expectations. “Friends and family who have gone on these trips come back saying it’s the best thing they’ve ever done,” he said, “I was expecting something as great as they described and that’s exactly what I got.”
While birthright participants were busy creating their first memories of Israel, other students were taking advantage of return trips through Hillel’s Winter Israel Experiences.
Previously known as Israel missions, this season Hillel offered three different tracks: Jewish Pluralism and Peoplehood, Green: Israel and Global Environmentalism, and Leading Up North - Tzedek (Social Justice).
While a pluralism track has been offered in winters past, this year’s Jewish Pluralism and Peoplehood trip took on a new twist, including, for the first time, students from outside North America. A group of 45 students from the United States and Canada were joined by 45 students representing Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Italy to reflect on the current and future status of the Jewish people through exploring the Jewish past.
The group toured Israel, to gain perspective on the issues at hand, as well as heard from Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Re'ut Institute; Yossi Abramowitz, founding CEO of Jewish Family & Life; Yossie Goldman, Hillel in Israel associate vice president and director; and Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel.
The trip culminated with the creation of a strategic plan for the future of the Jewish people touching upon issues involving anti-Semitism, intermarriage, Jewish education, divisions between the different Jewish denominations and Israel.
Former Hillel President Avraham Infeld poses for a picture with the student delegation from Hillel Rio.
In a thank-you letter to the trip’s staff, Russian student Eugenia Pipenko wrote, “I hope more youth will have such a great opportunity to break the limits of understanding Judaism like I did.”
“I came onto this trip expecting to be so comfortable being a Hillel leader. I never expected to be pushed so far out of my comfort zone,” wrote Sara Lewis, a Rutgers University junior, in another thank-you letter. “I’ve never really had a chance to interact with international students and the experience opened my eyes to the worldwide Jewish community.”
A new addition to the Israel Experience roster was the Green: Israel and Global Environmentalism track. Available to both undergraduate and graduate students, this track aimed to provide a unique way to see Israel by focusing on the challenges of global environmentalism and exploring how they relate to Israel’s growth and development.
Highlights of the trip included meeting with members of the Knesset Green party to learn about environmental law and policy making, visiting Israel’s Ministry of Environment to explore the legal sides of enforcing environmental law and traveling to the north to take a look at destroyed forests, and see how the Jewish National Fund is responding.
Students established a planning committee on the second or third day of the trip in order to develop the best way to bring back their experiences to their respective campuses. Yosef Gillers, a freshman environmental studies major at Washington University in St. Louis, served on that committee.
“We discussed ways we could work to make ourselves and our campuses green as well as what programs we can run that would incorporate both environment and Israel education,” he said. “The point was to come up with ways for us to use Israel as a microcosm to show how everybody in the world needs to work together to achieve a more sustainable future.”
Hillel sent two groups to Israel’s north to repair damage from last summer’s Hezbollah rocket attacks. One group participated in Leading Up North, an effort sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
The Israel on Campus Coalition also sent a group on the Leading Up North trip.
Ira Blum, a freshman at Muhlenberg College, spent several days painting a bomb shelter serving an elementary school in Kiryat Shmoneh. “From the outside, the job was very simple, very easy, but it turned out to be much more than that” he said. “There was no arguing and no competition for power. People who knew how to do something, showed others how to do it. Some of the students of the school even came down and helped us. They had the time of their lives.”
Nicole Brodie, a sophomore at Brandeis University, spent some time refurbishing a stairwell of a damaged apartment building. She found the most rewarding part of the experience to be direct interaction with members of the community.
“While we were working, the residents would come out of their apartments offering water and drinks or inviting us into their homes for tea,” she said, “I enjoyed meeting with them and getting their perspective on life in general and hearing about their experiences during the war.”
“We were improving the lives of these people and they, in turn, improved ours,” said Blum. “We never ran out of energy or motivation.”
For Jew by Choice Valerie Carpenter it was truly a life-changing experience.
“I’ve been excited about this trip for six months and it has been the best experience of my life,” she said. “Once you see it, smell it, walk on it and fall on it, you really can’t help but give it a special place in your heart.”