Burris tries out a yoga pose at the Dead Sea.
Hillel activist Jessica Burris, a University of Virginia junior, had been planning her Taglit-Birthright Israel adventure for weeks and media coverage of the situation in Gaza was not going to interrupt her plans.
“I didn’t have a doubt in my mind about continuing on the trip,” said Burris. “We were always safe.”
One of the reasons Burris felt so safe was her security escort, IDF soldier, 18-year old Tal, who accompanied her bus throughout their extensive tour. As roommates, Burris and Tal stayed up late at night talking about what it means to be an Israeli and what it means to be Jewish.
“She made me feel that even though I was unsure on my religious stance, I am a Jew,” said Burris. “She made me feel - I've always been a Jew and I always will be.”
Throughout the 10-day journey, Burris and her University of Virginia classmates kept their worried parents up-to-date by posting photos and daily blog entries.
Students from Baltimore-area schools told The Baltimore Sun that they remained confident in the security of the trip, were eager to experience Israel and looked forward to showing their support for the country. Robert Matuzsan, the father of two students participating on the trip from Johns Hopkins University, said, "If I thought there was any case of them being in danger, I'd say, 'Forget it, they're not going.' It's a great experience that we really don't want them to pass up."
Students from other campuses traveling in Israel this month also maintained blogs for friends and family to read daily. Ian Hest, a sophomore at the University of Miami, wrote:
I know that this will sound very corny and cheesy but I already am starting to feel a connection to this place and we’ve only been here hours. And while you do see the military around, you really can hardly know that anything is going on.
Signing her blog entry “very tired, but very, very happy,” Virginia Tech Hillel student Sabrina Wilbern wrote on January 6:
We’ve had the opportunity to see the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and Hatikva [Israel’s national anthem] was first played, an underground super-secret bullet factory for the War of Independence, a yoga Shabbat service, and so much more in just three days! We’ve all become a lot closer to Israel and to one another. We participated in group discussions where we debated whether the Jewish people are normal or special and how we felt connected to Israel.
Personally, I feel better than ever about my decision to become more active in the Virginia Tech Jewish community, and coming to Israel may have been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Israel is an amazing country, and being here in our homeland makes me feel so proud and I know that whatever the trip brings, I will relish as much as the pita and hummus I had for dinner.
Hillel students from Arizona, Vermont, Washington, D.C. and upstate New York, collided in a hotel in Tiberias where they exchanged stories and reveled in their shared experiences.
Jeremy Moskowitz, an engineering student at Cornell University said he was most impressed with the group’s visit to meet Kabbalah artist David Friedman in Safed, one of Israel’s four holy cities.
“It was my first time seeing art that could incorporate science and religion," said Moskowitz. "I believe a great deal in Science and liked how David found a way to combine it with religion. He quoted Einstein ‘Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.’”
There are eight more busloads of Hillel students still waiting to depart for Israel. In total, 2,000 students from 125 campuses will have experienced Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel’s program by the time they return to campus at the end of this month.
Jessica Burris, who returned safely to the United States on Wednesday, could hardly contain her excitement as she prepared to board her plane at Ben-Guiron International Airport.
“This trip was life changing,” she said. “No one was expecting to have as amazing a time as we did. We've all had an outstanding experience and it’s been surprisingly emotional. This experience was an enormous, fantastic, indescribable gift that someone somewhere gave to me and I am so grateful.”