By Daniel Kuhn
Michigan State University (MSU) hosted its fourth annual Israel Fest, a celebration of Israeli culture, on Sept. 17 at the MSU Union.
MSU Hillel, with support from the Jewish Student Union (JSU) and ASMSU, the university's student government, organized the event.
Israel Fest has consistently been the largest event on its campus each year celebrating everything that is Israel, attracting hundreds of students for an opportunity to hear Israeli music, taste Israeli food, see Israeli art and learn more about Israel.
It's also an opportunity for students who spent the summer in Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips and the university's study abroad program at Hebrew University to bask in the memories of their experiences.
The theme of Israel Fest this year was "Welcome to Israel." As attendees entered the MSU Union, El-Al flight attendants greeted them at the "Ben-Gurion Airport" station. Other stations expressed the unique qualities of the country's diverse regions, including a Western Wall to write notes to be sent to the Kotel, a shuk
to purchase T-shirts and Michal Negrin jewelry, Abu Ghosh to enjoy delicious hummus, and the Negev and Dead Sea where students were given spa massages, coffee in a Bedouin tent. Students also were able to learn about the desert and environmental sustainability.
The event usually attempts to express Israel through the senses, such as the tastes of falafel and baklava, sounds of live Israeli music and sights of Israel's finest attractions. This year, however, the planning committee, consisting of Jewish students active in Hillel, decided to make a commitment to build an educational element to better inform students of what this country the size of New Jersey has to offer.
Aaron Levine from West Bloomfield, Mich., a JSU representative and an environmental economics
and policy major, wanted to share his love and respect for the desert that he developed while living there after high school.
"We wanted to make the educational component a priority so students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, could see a side of Israel that is often behind the scenes," Levine said. "In order to truly understand Israel and to put what you see in the news in context, you need to know the smaller things — that Israel develops technology or has a true diversity of people living in it. We wanted to make Israel very real."
A station representing Abu Ghosh, an Arab village outside Jerusalem and the first Arab village to officially join Israel after independence, was developed by James Madison College senior Aaron Schaer of Huntington Woods. Not only was hummus served to please the palate, but information about Israel's Arabs was displayed to highlight a side of Israel many aren't able to see.
On a campus with more than 40,000 students, Israel Fest is marketed well beyond the Jewish community. While
Jewish students are eligible for Taglit-Birthright Israel, and many have already traveled there or grown up in a pro-Israel environment, many non-Jewish students come to campus ready to form their opinions on Israel and the world at large. One such student was Jonathan Ottolini, a sophomore studying international relations.
"Israel Fest was immensely entertaining and informative," Ottolini said. "From the food to the music to the interesting facts on posters and T-shirts, I feel I have a better idea of Israeli and Jewish culture. I had no idea that there was skiing in Israel."
Students learned it's important to get the truth out about Israel.
"To think that people might not go there because they hear it's scary or intimidating, now that's just a tragedy," Levine said.
Daniel Kuhn is a senior at MSU from West Bloomfield, Mich.