Jewish students who traveled to Israel this winter said visiting holy sites and meeting Israelis made them feel more connected to the country than before.
Despite security concerns, 56 GW students spent a week and a half visiting Jerusalem, floating in the Dead Sea and climbing Masada as part of the semi-annual Birthright Israel trip.
The trip is free of cost for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been to Israel on a peer group trip. It is designed to make students more aware of their past and their Jewish identity by seeing Israel through the eyes of their peers, organizers said.
GW Hillel sent 41 undergraduate and 15 graduate students on this year’s trip. Other GW students also participated in the Explore Israel campus trip, which consisted mostly of GW students, and several specialty group trips including “outdoor adventure,” “peace, politics and journalism” and “arts and culture.”
Freshman Steven Holland said after his trip that he felt “more connected to (his) homeland” and is thinking of joining the Israeli army for a year.
“I feel strongly about defending not just a country but my people,” he said. “(The trip) has made me realize this is my homeland too.”
GW students on the Explore Israel Campus trip flew in and out of Tel Aviv and spent time most of time in northern Israel and Jerusalem. While in the north, participants stayed on a “kibbutz” – a communal settlement where habitants jointly own property and share work. Participants then traveled to the Golan Heights, along the borders of Syria and Lebanon, where they saw old mine fields.
For New Year’s Eve, students spent the night in the Negev Desert in a tent, where they partied to the sounds of a DJ’s music.
“It was a different New Year’s, that’s for sure,” senior Gaby Nachabanski said.
The group then traveled to the Dead Sea and Masada, an ancient fortress, and spent five nights in Jerusalem, where they saw the Wailing Wall and a Holocaust museum, among other sites.
“The Dead Sea was the worst pain I have ever felt,” Nachabanski said of the extremely salty sea. “But it was still pretty cool.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the students their last night in Israel at an event for all students on Birthright trips.
GW Hillel organizers said this year’s participation was the night in Israel at an event for all students on Birthright trips.
GW Hillel organizers said this year’s participation was the highest in three years. Nationally, Hillel sent more than 2,200 students to Israel through Birthright this winter.
“It is a no strings attached deal that allows students to see a great country … and create a deeper connection with who they are,” said Simon Amiel, executive director of GW Hillel.
For the past three years, GW Hillel sent about eight to 12 students to Israel, but this year numbers more than quadrupled. Organizers attributed the increase to more advertising and a decrease in students’ fears about traveling to the Middle East.
Wade Strauss, Jewish student life associate for GW Hillel, said this year’s trip had pre-arranged rules so the environment would be controlled and safe for students.
Participants could not walk around the streets, go out at night or separate from the group. While officials told students that violators would return home immediately, GW Hillel has not sent any students home early in the past four years.
But Strauss said several students withdrew their applications this year because of parents’ concerns.
“I tell the parents all of the security precautions we will be taking, but I don’t try to convince them of anything,” he said.
Strauss said every bus has two Israeli security guards and carries a cell phone to stay in touch with Birthright Israel headquarters.
In addition, all travel routes were pre-approved by the Israeli Ministry of Education and other tour and education companies that continue to monitor the roads and steer the buses on alternative routes if security risks develop.
“I am not really nervous but I am fully aware of the (risks) in the back of my mind,” said senior Michael Solow prior to his departure.
Students with friends and family living in Israel could have visitors in their hotel rooms on certain nights, following the day’s programs.
Students said that overall their trip was worthwhile.
“Israel is in the media every day and people talk about it all the time, but unless you have been there you don’t really know what you’re talking about,” senior Baylene Wacks said.
The application process for Birthright Israel’s winter break trip began in September and includes an interview. Birthright Israel also sponsors a spring break trip and will provide more details in the coming months. Students can visit www.birthrightisrael.com for more information.
-Julie Gordon contributed to this report.