Virtual Programs Allow Students to ‘Travel’ to Israel During the Pandemic



July 9, 2020

Strolling down the Promenade beside Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean coast, student tourists would think they’re walking through a tropical paradise. At a nearby lookout towering above the beach, the tour guide said the park behind them is the birthplace of Israel’s LGBTQ+ culture.

In the comfort of their homes, Hillel students watched the Virtual Rainbow Tour TLV, a virtual tour video created for students to experience the history and sites of Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ+ community. The video used Google Maps’ street view to show students four locations vital to understanding the LGBTQ+ capital of the Middle East.

For many Jewish college students, Birthright Israel trips are a jumping-off point for Israel engagement. They allow Hillel students to experience the culture and traditions of the Jewish homeland, sparking an interest in learning more after returning to campus. But  coronavirus-related travel restrictions have led to the cancelation of Birthright Israel programs this summer.

So, how do students explore and engage with Israel without physically being there?

Hillel International partnered with Rainbow Tour TLV to bring the virtual walking tour to students across North America, sharing a guide containing explanations, questions and trivia for participants on Zoom.

Rainbow Tour TLV Founder Slav Adam Leibin said he wanted to “bring the streets to you and talk about independence in a different context.” The tour explored the word ‘independence’ in order to place the struggle for LGBTQ+ independence into the context of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. 

Throughout the pandemic, Hillel has been providing students with opportunities to immerse themselves in Israeli culture, holidays and music.

Jon Falk, director of Hillel International’s Israel Action Program, explained that in order to fully engage a broad cohort of students in virtual Israel programming, the content must meet three goals: include Israeli stories and experiences, teach about Israeli history, people and climate; and celebrate Israel through holidays and achievements.

Hillel International offered programs to commemorate Yom HaZikaron, Israel Memorial Day.

Jewish Agency for Israel Fellows at four Hillels shared the personal stories of friends and family who are fallen soldiers during a Yom HaZikaron panel. Since most Israelis serve in the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Fellows shared the experiences of their loved ones.

At Hillel at Tel Aviv University, students shared their experiences about serving in the army and in college during a panel discussion called ‘Faces of Israel’ with North American students.

To celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, Hillel International partnered with other Jewish organizations to host a massive Facebook Live event, highlighting Israeli food, fashion, technology and sports. Jewish leaders and artists made virtual appearances, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, “Unorthodox” star Shira Haas and the Platt Brothers. Topping off the five-hour event was a global dance party featuring Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu.

Hillel students also attended virtual question and answer sessions with Israeli celebrities on Hillel@Home, an online community for college students.

Interfaith couple Tzachi Halevy, an Israeli who plays Naor in the Netflix series “Fauda,” and Lucy Aharish, the first Arab-Israeli primetime news anchor, discussed their marriage and work to promote pluralism on their respective platforms.

When asked about what students should take away from the session, Aharish said, “The solidarity of Israelis cannot be found anywhere else in the world.” Halevy added, “We have a lot of positive coexistence within our society.”

Hillel Montreal hosted a session with Israeli actress Rona-Lee Shimon, who plays Nurit on “Fauda,” followed by a watch party of the show’s third season. The Hillel also hosted an interview with Israeli actress Tamar Amit Joseph, who starred as Yael in “Unorthodox.”

Another Q&A session, organized by University of Delaware Hillel, featured American-Israeli baseball player Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher for the Miami Marlins who played for Team Israel. He spoke about his Jewish journey, life in Israel and baseball career while answering students’ questions. 

“Playing for Team Israel was a life-changing experience,” Lavarnway said.

Since the pandemic forced many Israeli summer programs to cease operation, various Jewish organizations, including Masa Israel Journey and Onward Israel, hosted a webinar called “Get Back to Israel” on the Hillel@Home platform.

Onward Israel offered a pilot program called Onward Israel Remote, a seven-week remote internship program with Israeli companies.

Gali Gordon, director of partnerships for Masa Israel Journey, noted that while Israel’s skies are only open to citizens and Masa Fellows, the organization is focusing much of its attention on online programming and future registrations.

“We see this as an opportunity to bring those who might otherwise be unable to participate in an Onward Israel program,” said Jacob Kranitz, Partner Relations & Special Projects Coordinator for Onward Israel.

Despite trip cancellations, students could learn more about political issues in the Middle East. On May 19, Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, who authored the highly touted book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” shared responses from Palestinians with Hillel students in a multi-part series. When asked why he wrote the book, Klein Halevi said disagreements over historical events should not erase the current narratives of Jews or Palestinians.