Real Stories - Changed Lives


Personal stories of lives impacted by the opportunities offered through JUF's Israel Education Center.

Real Stories - Changed Lives

Thank you

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By Laura Cusack
Program Director, JUF’s Israel Education Center


It was about 6 years ago that I met Emily. At the time I was a student at North Park University in Chicago and Emily was the director of a non-Jewish outreach program run by JUF’s Israel Education Center (IEC). I was in a different place in life than most people my age.  I returned to school to obtain my Bachelors in my late 20s, and providence placed me on a campus that would lead me down a totally new path in life. Emily had formed partnerships at North Park which eventually led to our connection. I remember meeting her for coffee about an opportunity to join a delegation to D.C. to advocate for continued U.S. support of Israel. I could not believe someone was offering this kind of opportunity to me. 

Although not Jewish, I had grown up in a home that supported Israel and at North Park was fortunate to have Political Science faculty who also gave students the opportunity to learn, grow, grapple with and develop a deeper understanding of the modern State of Israel. 

The connection with the Chicago Jewish community was totally new and exciting and the opportunity to take action with this community was unprecedented in my life. But it didn’t end there. Emily then continued to offer more opportunities- soon I was interning with the IEC on campus and connecting my university community to Israel. But there was so much more to come!

I’ll never forget the day Emily called me and asked if I wanted to go to Israel. I actually cried on the phone, I just couldn’t believe it! Why me?! At that point I had graduated and was looking for an open door. This was it.

From the minute I took that journey to Israel my life would never be the same. Not only did the trip transform me, but soon afterward I would be welcomed into this community to work for the Israel Education Center. That was August of 2010. 

Although I had traveled to Israel and was involved with the IEC on campus, entering into the Jewish communal world as professional staff was a totally new experience. Each day was an adventure, an opportunity to learn and grow, and a special privilege that changed my life as the years progressed. Five years have passed since that point- and so much has happened, in my life, in the community- in the world. 

Over the past 5 years my life was expanded through the experiences I had with outstanding Federation staff, wonderful Hillel colleagues, Israel Fellows, speakers, journalists, policy makers from Israel and throughout the U.S., faculty on campuses across Illinois, students, interns, other partner organizations and so many more. The resources that this Federation poured into my life have been tremendous. My experiences included running one of the IEC’s pilot programs, overseeing lecture tours, writing educational resources, staffing a non-Jewish student leadership trip to Israel and policy conferences to D.C., overseeing IEC’s internship programs, and increasingly combatting the delegitimization of Israel on campus.

There have been so many wonderful experiences connecting the next generation to Israel but also some very challenging and difficult ones. I’ve watched how quickly the campus climate towards Israel has shifted, how the world has shifted. I’ve been there with the community as Jewish students have experienced hate, isolation, harassment, intimidation and anti-Semitism. I’ve been on campus when anti-Israel divestment resolutions and referendums pass and have seen the impact they have on Jewish students, the campus community and beyond. I’ve been continually exposed to those whose sole mission is to fight a battle intended to tear down and destroy a people and a special place.

Although this is a reemerging battle that has been waged against Jews for millennia and although we are entering a challenging time, one thing I have learned from this community is resilience- and ALWAYS upholding the creation, building up and celebration of life. I am totally confident that what is meant for harm will turn out for good. This is the legacy of the Jewish people for thousands of years. That for every challenge, hardship, persecution and attack – there remains a steadfast story of triumph. An enduring spirit that always thrives, grows, gives more life and shares it with the entire world.  

This is the community I have been privileged to be a part of. This sharing of life is what I’ve been given. I have told many close colleagues that my time here has brought me levels above and beyond what I ever expected, and what an amazing experience and blessing this has been. The love and care shown to me have changed me- I’ll never be the same.

At the end of this month I move on to another part of the country for new experiences and adventures. But I leave a place I love and people that mean so much to me. Thank you Emily for your friendship, generosity and open heart.  I’m moving on with a commitment wherever life takes me to support Israel- and with total gratitude for everything this community has done in my life.  Thank you.

Finding love on Birthright

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by Allie Kahan
Lewis Summer Intern, Israel Education Center


The wooden door brushed against soft metal chimes as I entered the gift shop. The shelves were overflowing with keepsake objects ranging from handcrafted dreidels to the blue Hamsa necklaces which every girl decides to buy for herself before returning from Birthright. I had grown used to the constant company and chatter of my Shorashim group. To be in the absence of noise felt strange to my ears. I walked to the front counter and grazed a stack of Hamsa bracelets with my hand. I stood there, trying to silently count how many friends I should actually buy one for, when an older Israeli gentleman emerged from a hidden office in front of me.

“American?” He asked me, looking up and down at the girl in front of him with the fanny pack and a double fistful of Hamsa bracelets. The answer was obvious. I nodded. “Birthright?” I nodded again, smiling. “Do you know the reason why you are here?” He leaned across the counter, his eyes shining with meaning.

“To connect with my Jewish identity and experience Israel for the first time,” I answered, paraphrasing what every single website had told me the purpose of a free, 10-day trip to Israel was. At this, the man burst into laughter, a real belly shaking laugh that made me go through my answer word-for-word and wonder if there was some sort of unintentional joke I made.

“Rachel, you are so naïve!” he chortled, catching his breath.

“Actually, I’m Allie—“

“The thing is, Rachel,” He continued, unbothered. “Yes, you are here for all of those things. But most importantly, you are here to fall in love.”

“Me?”  I looked at him with genuine confusion.

“You, her, him, anyone.” The man threw his hands in the air and shook his head. “Birthright is not a vacation. It is a journey. It is a journey to fall in love and have a million Jewish babies.” He took off the glasses that were precariously perched on his nose, rubbed them on his shirt, and put them on again. “You got that, Rachel?”

I walked out of the store with 10 bracelets and a million questions. The shopkeeper was not totally wrong. All around me I saw my once big cohesive group pairing off, whispering and giggling about how they found their “Birthright romance.” It was something I knew happened before the trip when older and wiser Jewish girls told me that “practically everyone couples up by Shabbat.” While there were many affaire de Coeur in the winter of 2014, none were quite as legendary as my friend Summer's*. 

When Summer first arrived in Israel, she was mostly looking forward to meeting the Israeli soldiers on our trip. She first saw Eitan* in Ben-Gurion Airport, where the IDF soldiers were meeting us for the first time. He was in uniform and playing guitar for everyone as we introduced ourselves. The next day she discovered that he knew French, a language she also loved. They hiked side-by-side along the Zevitan River in the Golan Heights, talking the entire three hours. He was trying to play it cool; she thought he was being weird and aloof. Although they did not know it yet, this was the beginning of something special.

“It’s weird, because four days doesn’t sound like a lot, but on Birthright it’s like forever,” Summer told me. She was right. It only took three for me to completely forget that I had a life that wasn’t on that tour bus, and to seriously wonder how I had ever lived 19 years without having these people in my life. Day One you meet, Day Two you laugh, Day Three you bond, Day Four you fall in love. Summer and Eitan spent most of Birthright together. He helped her climb Masada, where we rang in the New Year back home with a sunrise on top of a mountain. He showed her a beautiful skyline of Tel Aviv. They laughed, debated and celebrated their time together the way any happy in-love couple would. Even though those 10 days felt like forever, eventually they found themselves back at the airport to say goodbye. “When we left Birthright, I didn’t know if we would keep on talking or not. There was a plan that he would visit in the summer, but that was six months away from when we got back,” Summer said.

When Summer returned to Chicago she and Eitan talked every day. Not because they promised they would, but because they both genuinely wanted to. I distinctly remember her carrying an iPad around with his face on it during a reunion party, FaceTiming him in so that he could be with everyone again too. They decided that they didn’t want to date other people, and she flew out to visit him during her spring break. As soon as his IDF term ended, he came to Chicago for the summer. After she graduated from college, Summer did a Masa program in Tel Aviv to teach English. Together they traveled the world, documenting their adventures in photos and writing. Neither of them planned on it, but that Birthright trip completely changed the course of their lives. This trip gave them their start to an epic love story, one that would not have ever happened had they not signed up. How else would two people so perfectly perfect for each other on other sides of the world meet? 

Summer and Eitan are still in Israel together. After her program ends, they will move back to Chicago for a bit before embarking on their next adventure. When friends of mine question fate, this is the tale I tell the nonbelievers. Going on Birthright, I felt nothing but love. Love for my new Birthright family, love for the Israelis we met along the way, and love for this amazing country that leaves every visitor changed for the better. For every person contemplating whether or when they should go on Birthright- go! Who knows- maybe the next love story I’ll be telling will be yours.

*Names have been changed

Beneath the Helmet

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Rebecca Jacobs
IEC/Hillel Israel Intern
Northern Illinois University 


Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front is more than just a film. It is a thoughtful documentary of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that sheds light on the personal stories and lives of those who serve. As the film follows five soldiers, we are given a different view into their lives as the storyline fluctuates between each soldier. Through the lens of these stories we are able to see the scope of Israel's values- peace, equality, opportunity, democracy, religious tolerance and women's rights.

As the Hillel/IEC Israel Intern at Northern Illinois University (NIU), I was given the opportunity to screen this film in one of NIU's Military Science classes. Even more exciting was that we actually hosted Oren Giladi, an IDF Private featured in the film. Oren is a "lone soldier" from Switzerland. He left Israel at the age of five, but came back at eighteen to serve in the IDF.

The ROTC cadets and other students in the course watched the film, then Oren led the class in a discussion about the similarities and differences between the IDF and America's military. After the event concluded the professor of the class, who is a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) in the United States Army and a professor of military science at NIU, decided to show the film in his other ROTC classes. The feedback received from him and the Military Science Department was extremely positive. The LTC told me that, "the film facilitated a lot of discussion for us about military leadership. Some of the issues covered in the film are 'soldier issues,' which are common to all nations. As such, there was a lot of discussion about the leadership examples shown in the film and the responsibilities that go with being a military leader. Overall, I would say it was a valuable experience for the Cadets."  

It was exciting to see how much of an impact this film made on students of different backgrounds. Many of the students participating in ROTC will be America's future leaders and share in many of the same challenges that the IDF faces. Although this was only one event, these students were exposed to Israel and walked away with a connection to her.

For me this film was a reminder of how much I value the commitment and sacrifice of those serving and defending my homeland. I could never imagine entering the army at the age of 18 and being forced to make extremely difficult decisions. I see these soldiers coming straight from high school, both men and women, putting their lives on the line for their family, their friends- our people.

I was grateful to share this story- our story with students on my campus. In times of war, the IDF is often dehumanized in the media. This was an opportunity to combat that message and give the cadets at NIU something to relate to and remember.



Forming unique connections to Israel

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Abigail Seitz
IEC/Hillel Israel Intern at Columbia College

Monica Hirsch, Shaanan Streett, and Abigail Seitz

I was walking back to my dorm after a Hillel meeting one evening when a girl I did not know stopped me. "Hey! Aren't you the girl who planned that event a few weeks ago with the Israeli hip-hop guy?" she asked. The student went on to say she had attended the event and had a fantastic experience and asked for my email so we could discuss the event and its content more. I was totally stunned. The event, an interactive discussion with Shaanan Streett of Hadag Nachash, had been held over two weeks prior, so I was overjoyed that the night was still fresh in her mind.

The event was co-sponsored by Columbia College Chicago's music department, as well as the on-campus organization Art + Activism. In the weeks leading up to the event, I was nervous that the event would only attract Jewish students who already have ties to Israel. Columbia has a large commuter population, so organizations frequently struggle to get students to come to events.

The event drew about 40 people. When I looked out at the crowd, I only recognized about half of the attendees from Hillel. When asked how they heard about the event, each student had a different answer. Some said they heard about the event from their professors, while some had found the event online. Regardless of how they were attracted to the event, I was proud to look out and see over a dozen students with no relationship to Israel eagerly listening to Streett discuss Jerusalem nightlife.

I began the event by asking Streett questions about Israel's music scene and his personal journey as both an artist and activist. When I turned the question-asking over to the audience, I found the students I didn't recognize from Hillel asking the most engaging questions. While Israel is a common topic of discussion amongst my Jewish peers, it was exciting to see students with little previous exposure to Israeli culture engaged.

It is easy to forget that Israel is a fusion of different cultures and ideas when the news focuses on conflict and war, which is why working to engage students through Israel's unique culture has been a rewarding experience. Columbia is an innovative arts school, so the student body is relatively unconventional. Columbia does not have a Model U.N. or a College Democrats organization; students are typically more consumed by their artistic mediums and interests. Some may see this as a dilemma for campus Israel advocacy, but I have found it to enhance the programming that I plan as an Israel Education Center intern for Columbia's campus.

When students have the chance to meet an actual Israeli musician and activist, more meaningful connections are formed, even without direct ties to the land. Throughout the rest of the semester, I plan to continue to create unique and artistic events with the Israel Education Center and Columbia's distinctive student body so that more students can have the opportunity to learn about Israel in a context outside of its conflicts in hopes of creating a greater understanding of Israel as a state today. 

Soul stories: The blessing of informal education

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by Anna Weinstein
Engagement Associate, Metro Chicago Hillel

Anna's Birthright group at Masada

Overnight, I gave birth to 46 students. Somewhere between standing backward on the twisting and turning Birthright bus-without experiencing my typical car sickness-while taking roll call and passing my hand sanitizer to my germaphobic students for the 100th time, I realized I had become a Jewish mother. I was multi-tasking, focusing only on them, and exhorting everyone to stay hydrated.

"Why do I need to wear a hat?" they asked.    

"Because "mom" said so!" I joked.  

Until our return flight landed safely in Chicago and I accumulated a few nights of sleep, I was not able to digest the entirety of the beautiful experience my students and I just had. After a few days, my co-leader and I began receiving texts, emails, and calls from our students. Hearing how the trip impacted them and made them more committed to their Jewish identities super-charged my confidence in the future of the Jewish people. I know our students will one day become leaders in our community and in our world.

When I asked the students which activity or discussion was most interesting to them, most immediately named one activity during Shabbat. Students had the opportunity to sit in a circle and individually share a story of their "Jewish journeys" from birth until present.  I felt that this activity was the turning point of our trip. The students were listening on the edge of their seats as their peers made themselves vulnerable, revealing their personal stories to the group. Even after the session ended, the stories continued throughout the rest of the trip and new bonds were forged.

This is the blessing of informal education. This is why I love working for Hillel. Over the past semester, I have had the privilege of participating in Engage2Educate, a Hillel International fellowship to train Hillel professionals in leading Jewish learning and conversations. An E2E teaching that has resonated with me and sprang to life through interacting with my Birthright students was this concept of soul stories. Soul stories are personal truths that reveal the whole of who you are (versus an "ego story" which spins facts, and crafts a person into someone he or she is not).

When my students shared touching soul stories during this Shabbat activity, like Holocaust-surviving grandparents making new lives for themselves in Israel or the challenges of growing up in an interfaith family, they become each other's teachers. The power of the informal educational environment of Birthright is that students learn from listening to each other, rather than simply reading stories about Israel or Judaism from a textbook. On Birthright, learning comes to life. Students physically stand on the border of Gaza and together reflect on what peace means. Students pick an organic Israeli strawberry from the shrub and taste the importance of making the desert bloom. Students pray in a synagogue 6,200 miles from their homes yet still join in the same familiar melody as "Oseh Shalom" echoes from the bima. 

Birthright serves as a model for how I want to approach Jewish education on my campus moving forward. If we treat every potential Jewish experience with the creativity, intimacy, and excitement that we do for Birthright, we will undoubtedly help create an amazingly vibrant Jewish campus community.

So, next time I have an urge to photocopy a passage from the week's parsha for a lunch and learn, I will pause and remember the power of my students' soul stories on Birthright and rethink how to make those words spring from the page and come to life.

Chicago Catholic High School teachers experience Israel

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by Lisa Klein

Seven high school teachers representing four schools are experiencing a whirlwind eight days in Israel. This is a joint project of JUF's Israel Education Center  and the Archdiocese of Chicago that has been generously funded through private donations.

When the teachers return to their schools they will integrate what they are learning into their curricula which ranges from art to history with the help of our Israel Educator. Yesterday took us through 2,000 years of history and our Jewish ties to the land. A visit to the Microsoft Accelerator showed Israel today at the forefront of technology and visits throughout the Galilee showed our ancient roots.

The trip goes way too quickly but we hope to spread before them the canvas that is Israel as well as an understanding of Jewish Peoplehood. The goal is that they will pass on this knowledge of our historical connections to the land of Israel and Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state to the hundreds of students who pass through their classes.

Drew Harweger, a World History teacher at St. Rita of Cascia High School said of the trip: "Modern Israel is a complex narrative the headlines paint with only a single brush. The beauty of this land doesn't necessarily lie in the ancient history, but in whom the storied past means something to today, the people. Israelis are an eclectic yet largely unified people whose story, which is absolutely resilient yet defiantly dogmatic in each their own right, deserves a multitude of brushes to paint their story."

We'd like to share from one of the teacher's blogs, Sean Sweany from Mount Carmel High School who is updating his students about his experience in Israel. You can follow the link below to track the teachers trip through Sean's perspective and read the most recent entry here:

 Busy day in Tel Aviv  

We had our first full day in Tel Aviv today and wow, what a packed day. After a quick run along the Mediterranean coast and nice healthy breakfast I was ready to see Tel Aviv. 


We started at Tel Aviv University, where we met with Professor Uzi Rabi of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who talked with us about the Middle East situation. He eloquently and concisely summed up his thoughts in several themes: political culture, state vs. religion, artificially created states (Israel, Iraq, Syria, etc.), superpowers and their role in the Middle East, and finally, Israel itself. 


The situation is so much more complicated than the American media ever portray it to be. Professor Rabi had some interesting points:

Israel and its complicated story is only one small piece of the entire tale. It is religion that gives people their identity, not arbitrarily created countries like Iraq, Syria or even Israel. Given this, a new map (literal? figurative?) is needed to really know who is who. Nothing will ever be solved by two leaders sitting down to 'hammer things out.'  Really, there needs to be an educational resolution so that people in this region come to 'respect the other.' And that 'agreement' is a better, more feasible word than 'peace.'

It was a fascinating conversation that has created many more questions than it answered. I gained a new appreciation of how intricate the situation here really is and how difficult it is for leaders to address. 


After meeting Prof. Rabi, we visited the Yitzhak Rabin Museum, which details the life and assassination of the Prime Minister along with the history of the state of Israel. This was yet another exposure to the short yet busy history of this country, a theme which has not been lost on any of us. 

After lunch we toured the Peres Peace Center, a non-profit, NGO created by former Israeli President Shimon Peres dedicated towards promoting interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. One way they do this is to create sports leagues where Palestinian and Israeli children play soccer with one another, learning to develop relationships. The Center also coordinates medical care in Israel for Palestinians who either do not have access to or cannot afford treatment in Palestine. This was inspiring, to see that in spite of the anger, hatred and violence between these two parties, good relations can be had between them with the right attitude and dedication. 


We also had a brief visit to an art museum for one of the most famous Israeli artists, Reuven Ruben, who had some pretty wild stuff. 


After dinner in the nearby town of Jaffa, we celebrated the beginning of Hanukkah with Rachel Korazim, an educator who led us in a discussion of poems and stories that challenge perceptions of cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel as a whole. The interpretation of literature, rhetoric and history here was fascinating to me, as someone who geeks out doing this in a Latin or English class. 

After this we lit the first candle of the Menorah to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple as described in Maccabees. We also had some awesome jelly donuts, as is the tradition. 


I am pretty exhausted, but it was a great day. Ready for another Caravan Tough workout tomorrow morning (maybe a mythological swim...more on this to come...) and then we are off towards the Sea of Galilee. 

A short introduction from the new Israel Fellow

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by Eyal Ben Zeev
Cross Campus Israel Fellow, Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel


When I left Israel the siren still went off every day, all day. Leaving your country in times of war is not an easy thing to do. My then-ninth-months-pregnant sister used to run, very heavily, a couple of times a day to the shelter. I was hoping that she would make it to her due date. Newspapers reported that the alarms and the stress of the war were causing women to deliver earlier than expected.

When the airplane took off, first to New York and later to Chicago, I had no idea where I was heading. Chicago, back in the 60's, was another word for "crime" in Israel. When you wanted to say how safe Tel Aviv was relative to other major cities, you would have said, "it's Tel Aviv here, it's not Chicago." That was what I knew, more or less about the beautiful Windy City. Oh, that and "The Good Wife," of course.

So what makes a 27-year-old man decide to pack up his life and catch a flight to Chicago to work for the Jewish People? I am not sure, I still ask myself these questions, but I can think of a few reasons.

I am a very political person. I have an opinion, and like any Israeli, I believe that if I were the Prime Minister, Israel would solve all its problems in a day. My political tendencies even led me to achieve a B.A. in Middle Eastern History, a degree focusing on the modern history of the whole region. My love for my country, therefore, has not been only an emotional thing; rather an outcome of a long personal and intellectual process I have gone through over the years.

Like most Israelis, after graduating from high school, I joined the army and following my three-year service, I took "The Grand Trip Abroad."  Unlike most young Israelis, I did not choose to go to South America, Australia or India. I did discover India but at a much later date, and it became a very significant place in my heart, but when I was 21, I chose to travel to Europe. My European trip started in the UK, specifically in the small University town of Oxford where I visited my beloved cousin. While I was there, the Gaza War of 2008-9 (Operation Cast Lead) broke and I found myself, reluctantly, trying to explain to people why it was happening, and what was the nature of our enemy, Hamas.

Everywhere I went during this time I could see huge protests emphasizing terrible lies about Israel, lies I could not understand how anyone believed. I will never forget a conversation with a PHD student, who did not fail to share her opinions with me. We were sitting in a pub surrounded by many people and she said to me, "For me, talking to you (me), considering the fact that you were just released from the IDF, is as if I am talking to an SS soldier." I was shocked and hurt. However, I am grateful to her, to this day, for helping me to realize the very hard truth about the way my country is perceived and broadcasted outside of it.

I did not fully understand how to deal with this "truth" until I worked as an educator (Middle East History, Arabic). Unfortunately, I and others like me cannot meet all the people in the world for coffee and explain Israel and the complex history that brought it to its present day situation. Even without taking on the whole world and only focusing on the importance of Israel to the Jewish people one might say that the attachment of the Jewish people to the state of Israel is becoming less strong over the years and this is something that is a potential risk to the existence of the country. This, perhaps, leads me to my main reason for coming to Chicago:  I can start somewhere, and I should start somewhere. 

Since I arrived in Chicago about two months ago and through the coming year, I am serving as the Israel Fellow for the Jewish Agency for Israel and Metro Chicago Hillel. Together with the amazing staff of Metro Chicago Hillel, I am excited to bring different sides of Israel to our campuses (this year I will focus mostly on: Loyola, DePaul, UIC and Columbia) and hold events and activities to show students that Israel has a lot to offer and by that, expose them to its lesser-known sides. From educational programs about the conflict to speakers on Israeli culture and Birthright recruitment - we are doing all we can, with the generous support of JUF's Israel Education Center, to make sure more people get to know the beautiful face of the state of Israel.

They say that young minds are more open to new ideas - so Chicago campuses, here I come.


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