Scenes from the journey of a lifetime

(U-WIRE) GOLAN HEIGHTS, ISRAEL – Jewish college students from the United States found themselves in a key piece of territory in the Middle East this month while the leaders of Israel and Syria met in West Virginia to discuss peace.

Participants in the Israel 2000 program were in the Golan Heights, an area of Israel that may be returned to the Syrians as a result of the talks in the U.S. The students’ visit was part of a 10-day adventure for 6,000 college students who were selected to see the Jewish homeland for the first time for free through the Hillel-sponsored program.

(Seeing the Golan Heights) definitely makes it more real, said Kimberly Grabiner, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You never realize how serious it is until you experience it yourself.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is expected to return the Golan Heights to the Syrians in order to preserve peace in the Middle East, even through the proposal is widely unpopular in this country, according to recent polls. Students here gauged the opinions of local residents and discussed the technicalities of the land for peace initiative.

Before today, I didn’t think the Golan Heights was that big of an issue, said Mike Greenman of the State University of New York – Albany. But after hearing one of the workers on the Kibbutz, who lives on the Lebanon border, I see the importance of keeping the area for security purposes.

Students took tours around the Golan and were briefed on the issue by a member of the Golan Heights Residents’ Association.

The Israel 2000 program is the first major endeavor of Birthright Israel, an organization that is working to alleviate what it calls an identity crisis among American Jewry. The objective is to give Jewish students the opportunity to identify with their religion and culture in the Middle East and thus bring a new enthusiasm to other young Jews.

Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, the creators of this program, understand that an Israel experience is an essential point in the continuum of Jewish education, said Hillel President and International Director Richard M. Joel. This trip will strengthen the Jewish identity of young people and the communities they form on campus and after graduation.

Hillel, which has foundations and affiliates on 500 campuses around the world, comprises 3,000 students in Birthright Israel programs this winter break, with an additional 3,000 coming from other Jewish programs in the U.S., Canada and the former Soviet Union. Birthright Israel paid for all accommodations and airfare to Israel. Students only had to pay for transportation to the U.S. airport and a refundable $250 deposit.

Bronfman and Steinhardt, who are both members of Hillel’s International Board of Governors, each donated $15 million to the founding of the Birthright Israel program.

The program hopes to expand the program to other schools and become a yearly event. In five weeks, 9,000 students applied for the Hillel program this winter.

This year, five different tour providers prepared the trips for the students. Although they are different, each provides an opportunity for students to view the majestic land, including the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. Students participated in multiple conversations on their religion and the Jewish culture while in Israel.

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