Teaching Klal Yisrael
By Jeff Rubin
Associate Vice President for Communications
How do you teach the concept of klal yisrael, Jewish peoplehood?I was in Baltimore with Hillel Communications Associate Max Orenstein to meet with Hillel activists from Odessa, Ukraine, and with recent returnees from Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trips. Working together, Hillel and the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore created real human bonds between local students and their counterparts in sister cities in Odessa and Ashkelon.
Last week, I saw how one Jewish community makes klal yisrael come to life for students.
Video: Harbor 2 Harbor exchange program with UMBC Hillel.
The students who traveled from Baltimore to Israel were truly making a statement: They chose to visit Israel as the country mounted a military action in Gaza and as rockets rained down on southern Israel, including sister-city Ashkelon. Although a few students opted out of the trip at the last minute, more than 70 went to Israel.
Before the group left, synagogues around Baltimore collected toys and candy for children who were taking refuge in bomb shelters in Ashkelon. As soon as the group arrived in Israel, the Israeli army picked up the donations and immediately delivered them to the children.
Hillel and the Associated arranged for soldiers from Ashkelon to accompany the students during their trip. At first, the students felt a sense of distance from the soldiers. But as soon as the soldiers put on their civilian clothes, the groups mixed easily and well. "By the end of the trip the soldiers became one of us. They were our age, normal kids, who just happened to be in the army."
Towson University student Sara Feldman told the school newspaper.
Their visit to the national cemetery at Mt. Herzl took on special significance. "When we were there, we heard stories about the soldiers and the soldiers' friends who died,” Feldman said. “It was really emotional because these were stories about people we knew and it really connected us to Mt. Herzl."
Weeks after the trip, the students were still in daily contact with their Israeli friends over Facebook.
The Hillel activists from Odessa were also forging international ties.
The 11 students were participating in Harbor 2 Harbor, a special exchange program sponsored by the JDC, Hillel and the Associated that brought a group of Baltimore students to Odessa last year. In their reciprocal trip to Baltimore, the young Jewish activists visited Jewish institutions across the city, including the area’s campuses, day schools, and Jewish community centers. They were grateful to get a glimpse of American family life by staying in the homes of members of the Associated’s Odessa Committee.
Exhausted by their journey, the Odessans nonetheless absorbed everything around them and were stunned by the scale of the Baltimore community. Aleksandra Zlobina, the deputy director of the Hillel in Odessa, noted that her city has just one Hillel where Baltimore has four. It was clear at a luncheon with graduate students at Baltimore Hebrew University that young Jewish leaders were exchanging information and creating relationships that will continue as they take their place at the head of their respective communities.
Just as the Baltimore students created international friendships with their counterparts in Ashkelon, so these Odessa visitors bonded with their local hosts. The group spent Shabbat with students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). "This experience was profoundly meaningful," UMBC student Melissa Gilden said to the school newspaper. "At times I forgot that they came from halfway across the world."
That’s the meaning of klal yisrael today: not just understanding that we share a common heritage but feeling it in your heart -- and following up on Facebook.
Kudos to the Hillel and Associated professionals who worked so hard to make these trips possible, particularly UMBC Hillel Director Rabbi Jason Klein, UMBC Hillel Jewish Student Life Coordinator Tanya Gutsol and Jonathan Strausberg, campaign/Israel & overseas associate at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Special thanks to the JDC for its support for this program.