More than 60 GW students joined Hillel’s free 10-day Birthright Israel trip during winter break despite outbursts of violence that have continued throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since late September. The students joined groups from other universities to explore historic sites and learn about their Jewish heritage.
Students on the trip did not travel through the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem or other areas considered dangerous, where more than 350 people – mostly Palestinians – have died as a result of violence since September, according to the USA Today. Itineraries were cleared daily during the trip with Israeli security authorities, according to the Hillel Web site.
Karen Krantweiss, director of Student Activities at Hillel said during the trip the group did not experience or sense any of the animosity in the area.
“Being in Jerusalem it felt like nothing was going on,” she said. “It was very peaceful.”
Students were given a security orientation and detailed safety guidelines for their free time when they arrived in Israel, according to the site. Prior to departure, students said they were not worried about their security.
“Birthright is working with the State Department and government to ensure our safety,” freshman Jane Black said. “They wouldn’t send us if it was unsafe.”
Amanda Penn, a first-year graduate student, said safety concerns contributed to her understanding of Israel and the Middle East.
“We are lucky as Americans to not have to deal with hostility on a regular basis, but that is the reality for that area and the people who live there,” she said. “It will be a dose of reality for the people who have never had to deal with it.”
The trip is paid for through a partnership with the Israeli government, private philanthropists and Jewish federations that believe it is the birthright of Jews to travel to Jerusalem that is commanded in the Torah.
Krantweiss said that the trip was an incredible experience for all involved.
“We felt a real connection with the country,” she said. “I’m coming from this trip with a high.”
Students took part in activities designed to understand and explore different aspects of Israel. During their first two days in Israel, students toured the Southern Wall of Temple Mount and Beit Guvrin, two archeological sites near Jerusalem, then visited Mt. Herzl military cemetery, the final resting place for fallen Israeli soldiers.
Junior Elliot Golden said he hoped the trip would have a spiritual impact on him.
“Experiencing Israeli culture will help me better get in touch with why I’m Jewish and why I do what I do,” he said.
One of the main events of the trip was the Israel exposition, a massive fair that highlighted opportunities to live, work and study in Israel.
“This expo is to demonstrate the two main purposes of Birthright,” said Richard Joel, president of Hillel, to the 5,000 students at the expo. “To make sure that this is your first act of involvement with Israel that will lead to a second, longer visit and to use Israel as a warehouse of Jewish memories … make this a part of your Jewish journey.”
Students also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem and gathered afterward to conduct a formal conversation on Jewish identity, dominated by discussion about the Holocaust.
On Jan. 6, students experienced their first Shabbat in Jerusalem. The Shabbat, the Jewish day of holiness and rest, included prayer in the morning, a walking tour of Jerusalem in the afternoon and an evening party in the Jerusalem Convention highlighting the social aspects of the trip.
Junior Jake Artz said he felt a strong spiritual connection traveling to Israel.
“I had a bit of a rebirth at the beginning of the year after being idle for sometime,” he said. “This trip is a good opportunity to make (being Jewish) official.”
The group also spent time experiencing the natural beauty of Israel, visiting the mountain of Masada before dawn to see the sunrise over the Dead Sea, and traveling to Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border to see where the waves of the Mediterranean formed caves, grottoes and pools.
Krantweiss said the trip to Masada was incredibly moving for the students. She explained Jews escaped from slavery to the top of Masada and when they were found, instead of submitting to slavery, they stayed on the mountain and perished.
“Masada holds a historical significance in the Jewish faith,” Krantweiss said. “The students were moved by the story and felt a real sense of spirituality.”
Students learned about the political atmosphere of Israel at the Shorashim Center in Northern Israel, where students accessed information about the geographic and cultural problems of the region.
Krantweiss also said the group aspect of the trip enhanced the experience for the students.
“All the people on the trip are very tight and connected,” she said. “Now every time they see each other in J Street it will be like they’re right back in Israel.”
Students on the trip said they had many different reasons for taking the trip, including interest in the religious, social and historical aspects of Israel.
“I wanted to go on this trip because Israel is my homeland, even though I’ve never been there,” Black said. “I feel like a part of me is in Israel.”
Penn said she was more interested in seeing what a predominantly Jewish country is like and to learn about the impact of Judaism in another country.
“Experiencing Israeli culture will help me better get in touch with why I’m Jewish and why I do what I do,” Golden said.
Students said the trip changed their views on Israel’s importance in Jewish culture.
“The fact that the older generation in the Jewish community is helping the younger generation shows how important it is in the Jewish culture to travel to Israel,” freshman Henry Jinich said.