In partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel Experience, a delegation of eight Hillel student leaders spent a week in Israel to celebrate the country’s 75th birthday. They had high-level meetings with leading political and civil society leaders and had the opportunity to experience how Israelis commemorate Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Here are the highlights from their week:
1. Commemorated Yom HaZikaron with memorial services at Latrun and Mount Herzl and celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut in Tel Aviv
The defense and preservation of the State of Israel has come with a steep cost that we remember and honor on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. The student leaders attended the Masa Yom HaZikaron ceremony in Latrun and a memorial service on Mount Herzl, the location of Israel’s national cemetery. Brandon Wisnicki, a student leader from the University of Pennsylvania, reflected, “Gathering with thousands of people from all over the world to commemorate fallen soldiers and those who lost their lives to terrorism was a profound experience. We visited Har Herzl the next day, and were moved by the depth of the emotion in the ceremony which was attended by thousands of people who were directly affected by lives lost.”
In Israel, Memorial Day always leads directly into Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which is a powerful reminder that the establishment and continuation of the country rests on the shoulders of all those who have protected Israel in the 75 years since 1948. Celebrating Israeli independence on the streets of Tel Aviv and feeling the palpable joy and pride in the Jewish state was a favorite moment.
“Being in Israel for Independence Day, and having the opportunity to celebrate with Jews and Zionists from across the globe, reaffirmed to me, a Mexican Jew, that being Jewish is not about a nationality, it’s about a global interconnected community, and I am so proud to be a part of it,” said Gali Polichuk, a student from the University of Florida and the incoming Co-Chair of the Hillel International Student Cabinet.
2. Served as delegates for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)’s Israel at 75 General Assembly
As delegates at JFNA’s Israel at 75 General Assembly, the students brought a unique perspective to the important conversations at the GA about the future of the global Jewish community.
Jasmine Beroukhim, a student from University of California, Los Angeles, sat on a panel with Shelley Kedar, Director of Connecting the Jewish People Unit at the Jewish Agency for Israel, to discuss the importance of Israeli and American Jews sharing their unique experiences to enrich their relationships.
“Participating on this panel was a unique opportunity for Israelis and Americans to share their nuanced perspectives on diaspora relations and the importance of travel and shared experiences to learn more about one another, and celebrate each other’s individualized Judaism,” Jasmine said.
3. Attended the opening session of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors Meeting
The student leaders attended the opening session of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors Meeting where they had the chance to express their appreciation for the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program, and communicate the difficult challenges that they and their Israel Fellows are facing on campus. The student leaders also met with Major General Doron Almog, Chairman of the Executive for the Jewish Agency.
“Maj. Gen. Almog is an Israel hero, and we are all inspired by his leadership at the Jewish Agency. He was so empathetic to the challenges we are facing, and was very interested in learning as much as possible about our personal stories and individual connection to Israel,” said Jasmine Beroukhim.
4. Met Natan Sharansky
These eight student leaders are advocates for Jewish identity on their campuses and work hard to address the antisemitism they encounter. Meeting Natan Sharansky, whose life’s work has been to counter global antisemitism, was an inspiring moment. Sharansky shared, “There is a knowledge gap between Israelis and Americans regarding life on North American college campuses, it’s great to see such a wonderful group of leaders here to educate and build bridges.”
In reflecting on the conversation, Dani Sobkin, a student from University of California, Berkeley, said, “It was a pivotal moment in my life to meet a role model for activism and Jewish identity. I was so inspired by how much he cares and listened to our group about our experiences. He has been essential in steering the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program, and my relationship with the Israel Fellow at UC Berkeley, Shaked Bustnay, has been one of the most positive and meaningful components of my college career. I am thankful to Natan for his leadership and courageous work for the last 50 years and am inspired by his legacy with the Jewish Agency, Hillel, and the Jewish community worldwide.”
5. Met the President of Israel, Isaac Herzog
The student leaders had the honor of meeting with President of Israel, Isaac Herzog. During the meeting, the student leaders and President Herzog discussed the Hillel International Israel Leadership Network (ILN), and their work to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel activity on campus. The meeting was facilitated by Hillel International’s Chair of the Board of Governors, and close friend of the President, Matthew Bronfman.
“I felt heard by President Herzog’s acknowledgement of the challenges faced by Jewish students on North American campuses, and his high level of awareness about the nuances of Jewish college life. It’s not every day a group of students gets to meet with a head of state, and yet, in such a powerful space, President Herzog made us feel at home,” shared Allison Stone, a student at George Washington University.
6. Got a private tour of the Knesset and met with MKs
Sitting around the table at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Dani Sobkin noted that the experience of being able to connect with the heart of Israeli democracy would stay with her for a long time. The private tour of the Knesset and the meetings students had with Members of the Knesset like Oded Forer, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, reminded them of the importance of working with elected leaders as partners in our work towards meaningful progress both in Israel and in America.
7. Shabbat with Russian and Ukrainian olim
The student leaders celebrated Shabbat with a vibrant community of olim (immigrants to Israel) from Russia and Ukraine. Meeting these young adults who left their homes and families in upheaval to build new lives in Israel reminded the student leaders of the importance of having a Jewish state where Jews from all over the world can find a home.
Dani Sobkin said, “It was moving to hear these first hand stories from war and conflict. I was inspired by how their Jewish identities guided them through this time, and was honored to have the opportunity to spend Shabbat with them in Israel.”
0.5 What they’re bringing home
On the bus that took the student leaders around Israel on this once-in-a-lifetime trip, Adam Lehman, President and CEO of Hillel International, reflected that, “I’m most excited that the dignitaries and other leaders in Israeli society had the chance to hear from our student leaders and understand what our students are seeing on campus.” As the student leaders head home from their travels, they are excited to harness the energy and ideas that came out of their experience and incorporate them into the incredible work they do on campus.