This piece was originally featured on the Hillel Israel blog.
Meet Aaron Shaltiel: Brooklyn born-and-raised. He is studying Business Management at Brooklyn College.
Meet David Vainer: Originally from Costa Rica, he made aliyah at 17, and is now studying International Relations and Business Management at Hebrew University.
Aaron and David participated in the Hillel Olami program – an award-winning innovative project lead in partnership between five CUNY Hillel Centers and the eight Hillel Israel Centers. The goal of the project is to connect students from different parts of the world to deepen and explore their connection to the complex and changing landscape of Jewish Peoplehood through interacting with other Hillel students who are also invested in strengthening their bond to the Jewish State, Jewish identity, renewal, and continuity.
"Hillel Olami" is a new, innovative and unique project which highlights global Jewish Peoplehood among young adults on college campuses.
The project is a partnership between five CUNY Hillel Centers and the eight Hillel Israel Centers and is supported by a grant from the UJA Federation of New York.
Aaron and David were partnered up on the Holocaust Education Track of the program – they were tasked with the goal of looking at Holocaust remembrance and studies and exploring its role in building Jewish identity and Peoplehood today.
As part of the program, the New York interns spent a week in Israel in January with their Israeli peer-interns. Each intern spent a few days in a different Hillel Israel center and experienced a personal, tailor-made schedule based on the intern's personality, interests and internship track.
Aaron from Hillel at Brooklyn College spent the week with David in Hillel Jerusalem.
"If I needed to sum up the time that Aaron and I spent together in one word it would be 'intense'," David said, looking back on their packed itinerary and experiences together. Aaron called the week "one of my best ever."
The pair jumped right into things and began their intensive week on a Monday afternoon with a meeting with Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, the Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. Efraim sat with the two interns and explained his work on the practical, legal, side of Holocaust studies, working daily to protect the memory of the Holocaust and to bring indicted Nazi war criminals to trial.
Next, David and Aaron went to visit Amcha, an organization that assists elderly Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. David reflected that Amcha gave them a perspective on the practical element of Holocaust remembrance in a city where so many survivors live and are aging and require care. At the Amcha Center the students interacted with elderly Holocaust survivors and heard about their experiences.
Both Aaron and David agreed that the highlight of their trip was their visit to Yad Vashem, accompanied by Elias Feinzilberg. Feinzilberg, who is 98 years old, is the oldest living Holocaust survivor in Jerusalem. David's connection with Mr. Feinzilberg began during the past academic year when he met him through Zachor v'Kabed, a program at Hillel at the Hebrew University which studies the Holocaust and connects students with Holocaust survivors. David continues to visit Mr. Feinzilberg regularly and was so inspired by his remarkable story that he has decided to write a historical novel based on his life.
Aaron, who had been to Yad Vashem on previous visits to Jerusalem said that this visit "felt completely different" than his previous ones. "The whole museum just stopped," David remembered, when museum visitors realized who Feinzilberg was, "he was like a celebrity there." The interns recalled that people from all over the museum, including the museum staff, came to listen to Feinzilberg, and what was meant to be a small intimate tour naturally evolved into a museum-wide event.
David explained that Feinzilberg did not speak of his experiences in the Holocaust until he was 90 years old, after his wife passed away, and since then he has not stopped speaking. "Speaking about death keeps him alive," David explained.
Aaron emphasized that he found both being in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Track truly meaningful. "David was a great partner. He is one of the brightest people I've ever met. He taught me so much about Israel and the Holocaust that I didn’t know before…and today I experienced Yad Vashem with a Holocaust survivor. Seeing him enlightening the youth was one of the most amazing moments I've ever witnessed."
After a long week of Jerusalem-flavored activities with the Hillel staff including a full tour of the Mr. Scopus campus, dinner in Machane Yehuda and a night out in the Old City, the interns met up with the rest of their counterparts from all over Israel and CUNY for an action-packed weekend which ranged from celebrating Shabbat to an improv theater performance, contemplative study to jeep-riding, and more.
In addition to the Holocaust Track, Hillel Olami includes the following in-depth focus tracks: Tradition, Arts and Culture, Tikun Olam and Israel Engagement. All tracks include partnering interns in Israel and New York and are led and inspired by outstanding Hillel staff. The interns, capable and effective student leaders, learn and experience on both sides of the ocean, and in turn bring meaningful programming and engagement to their respective campuses. As David puts it, "From this experience I take back home a suitcase full of memories that provide me a broader focus on the value that today has and that tomorrow must have; the physical and metaphysical interdependence between the State of Israel and Jews in the Diaspora." The Hillel Israel interns head to work in New York at the end of March.