Real Stories - Changed Lives

IEC Real Stories - Changed Lives

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

Real Stories - Changed Lives

Students explore their Jewish culture on Taglit Birthright Israel

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By Jessi Barnes
Israel Education Center/Hillel Israel Intern
DePaul University 



I got the e-mail during finals week Winter Quarter of 2013. It was now official, I was accepted and heading to Israel over the summer on Taglit Birthright Israel (Birthright) - a free, 10-day experience of a lifetime. My mind was almost instantly flooded with a mix of emotions. I was ecstatic, for one, but I was also absolutely terrified to spend 10 full days in a foreign country with a group of 50 strangers.

But, I took the leap. And, if I had not faced my fear and anxiety, I am absolutely certain that I would not be where I am today. Going on Birthright has brought me a deeper connection with my faith, a brand new family of friends, and, of course, a severe case of wanderlust. Birthright can be summed up into a fascinating; unimaginable; and, admittedly exhausting, 10-day excursion across Israel with a group of young adults who quickly transition from strangers to family.

The Taglit Birthright trip has an outdoor adventure focused itinerary, while integrating the historical and cultural aspects of the beautiful country of Israel as well. There was acceptance of any and all beliefs, which was a breath of fresh air. It is an exceptionally welcoming experience to each and every participant.

Being thousands of miles away from home with a group of 50 strangers in a foreign country may seem terrifying to some. I know it was for me. So, why take the chance and go on a Birthright trip? Jordan Gold, junior, went on Birthright because he felt he "needed a new perspective" and wanted the chance to "visit the roots of my religion."

Curiosity about your background, heritage and faith is common among young adults, and going on Birthright can help hash out some of the difficulties that come along with the "finding yourself " stage of life. I was in the same boat. I applied to Birthright with the intent of learning more about myself and my heritage. And, what better way to do that than to spend 10 days in beautiful Israel - the homeland of the Jewish people?

The number of reasons to take this trip are absolutely infinite. Allie Kahan, freshman, took a trip this winter to "break up" the monotony of the six week break. Cameron Erickson, junior, explained that he "wanted to see firsthand why a strip of land smaller than the state of New Jersey was in the news so often."

Bringing together the various motives for taking the trip and the wide-range of backgrounds truly enhances the Birthright experience by granting so many more opportunities to learn and grow. The 10 days are spent traveling all over Israel, from the Golan Heights in the North, to the Negev Desert in the South--there was never a dull moment. The first question anyone asks when you return from Birthright is about your favorite part ... which is extremely frustrating, seeing as it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to just one moment.

Matt Weitz, junior, said that he "will always remember watching the sun rise on top of Masada and riding camels during sunset the night before." Floating atop the Dead Sea fully caked in mud, kayaking along the Jordan River, wandering the Shuk marketplace in Jerusalem and spending time on the beach in Tel Aviv are among the many other enjoyable experiences.

Of course, there are many sentimental moments woven into the midst of all of the fun. Visiting the Western Wall for the first time can be an extremely, and usually unexpectedly, emotional experience for many participants, including myself. Personally, I was not very religious before my trip to Israel. However, being at the Western Wall was an extremely intense moment for me. Witnessing firsthand all of the notes stuffed into the cracks of the ancient wall, and realizing that each of those notes represented an individual's gratitude, hopes, prayers, dreams or wishes, hit me extremely hard.

Kahan explained the experience at the Wall as being "the most powerful" moment of her trip. Gold even admitted that he "bursted out into tears," while visiting the Western Wall.

"At first, I didn't think it was anything that special," he said, "and then it hit me out of no where."

Regardless of motive to take the trip, most, if not all, Birthright participants come back home with an overwhelmingly positive attitude - about all aspects of their adventure throughout Israel. Christie Lacey, junior, perfectly explained that Birthright "not only helps you appreciate all you have, but, also teaches you to be a more accepting and tolerant person" and that Birthright has helped her "grow so much as an individual."

Birthright gave me so much as well. Most importantly, I gained a group of friends that I can call family and a fresh perspective on my heritage. Birthright also led me to many exciting opportunities, including my Israel Internship with the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation's Israel Education Center today.

Recently, with much excitement, Birthright expanded their eligibility requirements. Teens who had previously gone on an educational trip to Israel during high school are now able to participate. So, if you are Jewish and between the ages of 18-26, you are eligible to take this amazing opportunity to travel to Israel. Interested? 

Eligible to go? Registration for Summer 2014 trips is now open.  Register at

What we all take for granted

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Daniel Gethner, IEC/Hillel Israel Intern
Northern Illinois University


I am very thankful for all that I have in my life; my family, friends, roof over my head, clothes on my back and that I never miss a meal. I feel truly lucky. But why am I so special to have all of these wonderful opportunities? I attribute much of this to my family who has always been there for me. They are the building blocks of my life, providing me with a warm loving home and the freedom to explore life to the fullest.

During all the major holidays my family gathers to spend time together- and of course there is always food. The holidays are one of the few times a year I get to see my family which is why they hold special meaning for me.

The concept of going home to family is very much the same as how Jewish people feel about the return to Israel. The story does not end there- every homecoming is like the celebration of when a child comes back to their parents' house. Even today this celebration happens when thousands of young Jews from around the world travel to Israel through Birthright and other programs which have made young people, such as me, feel welcomed there.

As I return home to my family this week to celebrate Hanukkah, I've reflected on the story behind this holiday, how at the heart of the story we celebrate the miracle that a small amount of oil lasted not one day but eight in the land that we love and cherish.

This story is very much tied to the miracle of Israel today and why we cherish her so much. Thousands of years after this took place, we are determined to return to our land and hold on to our traditions apart from ridicule and threat. In many ways Israel is our oil- the small glimmer of hope that we needed to thrive. How is it that a small nation of 8,552 square miles that is under constant siege is still growing? It is due to the same kind of faith, courage and commitment to an idea that all Jewish people hold dearly- the idea to live in freedom. This is a true inspiration.

No one and nothing can take this kind of spirit away. The same spirit that endured thousands of years ago during this time still prevails to this day. I am moved by this story as I have recently traveled to Israel and experienced the daily lives of many Israelis. Israelis are not very different from Americans in the respect that they provide a land of freedom and protection to those who stand beside her.

I believe the holidays have the same meaning for all of us whether or not you're in Israel or America. As we spend time with our loved ones and look out for each other- I shall not take my life or the ones I love this holiday season for granted.   

The role of Hillel in Israel Advocacy on campus

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By Jonathan Kamel
IEC/Hillel Israel Intern, Northwestern University


My name is Jonathan Kamel and I am a sophomore at Northwestern University majoring in Political Science. I grew up in the great city of Chicago and am still a member of the incredible AnsheEmet Synagogue. I am currently the Israel Education Center's Intern at Northwestern working with the Fielder Hillel on my campus.

I'm writing today to talk about this community's investment in the next generation of Jewish leaders. As a leader on my campus, I have chosen to dedicate a significant amount of time away from my school work and social life to advocate for Israel on my campus. I consciously made this decision because I have deep connections to my Jewish faith, the nation of Israel, and its place as the homeland of the Jewish people.

The Israel Education Center has empowered me to become this leader on campus. I have been encouraged to build relationships with other student leaders, connect with non-Jewish students, and broaden the base of pro-Israel activists at Northwestern. By thinking of Israel not only through a Jewish lens, but a place where minority rights, freedom of the press, and democracy are protected, I can engage students with vastly different religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. This is currently my goal as the IEC Intern and President of Wildcats for Israel: to build a broad coalition of support for the Jewish state inclusive of all backgrounds and students.

If I can call myself a success story of the Jewish community (I sure hope I can), what is going on with my fellow Jewish peers? What are some of their connections with Israel? Do they even care at all?

While recent surveys shows that a large percentage of young American Jews have no connection to Israel, if you walk into any Hillel in Illinois you will find the opposite is true. Students are actively talking about Israel, Israeli politics, and the peace process. Hillel continues to be an open space for students to voice their opinions on Israel in a safe and nurturing environment. Yet it is important for students like me that Hillel remains firm on its policy of preventing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement from dividing the Jewish community on campus. BDS must not be allowed in the walls of Hillel or in any campus in Illinois.

It is my opinion that the Jewish community must engage my generation in many different facets and strategies in order to cultivate a love for Israel. Talking about Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people is a great challenge for today's media and Twitter obsessed generation. Students want something tangible they can hold onto and a place they can call home. They must learn to love Israel as a place where they will always be welcome and as a country that deserves their respect and devotion.

Birthright does this for many students. Northwestern students come back from Birthright in love with the land, food, and even some of the soldiers they met. Yet, like a Bar Mitzvah, Birthright cannot be the only involvement students have with Israel during their four year college experience. If this is so, we have failed. It is our community's role to continue to provide opportunities for Jewish students to engage with the fascination and diversity of modern Israeli culture. Whether this is through seminars, weekly discussions on Israeli current events, or Falafel fests, on-going pro-Israel programming demonstrates a healthy Hillel and an active Jewish student body.

We must continue to work with the plethora of Israel organizations on campus that encompasses a variety of different political views on Israel and with similar goals as Hillel and the Israel Education Center. Only as a united front can we face and defeat the anti-Israel activity that occurs on our nation's campuses. IEC Interns across Illinois are working with other student leaders to bolster the pro-Israel movement. This is why Hillel is so important and essential to the Jewish college experience. It is the hub, the meeting place, and the catalyst for Jewish life on campus and this includes Israel.

One of my favorite quotes is from the great Zionist, Theodor Herzl. In 1902, he wrote the famous words, "If you will it, it is no dream." Israel today is no longer a figment of our imagination, it is real, vibrant but continues to need our support and activism. I look forward to continue my work to educate my peers regarding the modern, Jewish state and I take pride in the fact that I am having a meaningful and positive impact at Northwestern.

Room in your heart, space at the table

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By Efrat David
Jewish Agency Cross-Campus Israel Fellow the Hillels of Illinois


In Israel, the holidays are a special time of the year. You don't need a calendar to know it's the High Holiday season, you feel it and sense it in the air.  It's a time of renewal and a fresh start. Everyone greets you with a Shana Tova blessing-- strangers and family alike, even the bus signs will switch from time to time to a Rosh Hashanah blessing. 

Everyone is in shopping mode, buying gifts for family and friends and almost every conversation will start with, "so what are your plans for the holiday?"  People exchange food recipes and fresh pomegranate juice is sold on every corner. 

Then everything slows down again for Yom Kippur, it's a unique time to reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness from God, from the people we hurt and ourselves. The intensity starts again right after Yom Kippur with the building of the Sukkah. Overnight you'll see thousands of sukkot, like flowers blossoming after the rain.

Two weeks before the eve of Rosh Hashanah I had a conversation with a colleague about how to translate the unique feeling in Israel during the holidays to Chicago. We were left with no answers. A few days before Rosh Hashanah, it occurred to me that I didn't have a Rosh Hashanah dinner to go to.  After talking with other Israelis and American friends in the city, I realized that I wasn't the only one. So I decided--if we don't have a dinner let's create one and bring Israel to Chicago!  I started inviting others to dinner and soon a dinner of four became a dinner of 13 people.

Thirteen strangers came together for this Rosh Hashanah dinner. Sounds like the beginning of a Jewish joke, but in our case this is how our night started. Soon enough, this dinner transformed and for one night we weren't strangers to each other--we were family.

Our dinner could easily have ended after an hour, but everyone stayed till midnight to talk about (and argue like any other typical Israeli family) various topics from politics to water around the table. For me, this was the first time I really felt the holiday spirit during my time here in the states away from home. I realized I succeeded in creating this special holiday spirit even if it was for one night and I didn't do it alone- I had 12 other partners.

In Israel the concept of hospitality (הכנסת אורחים), is an important part of the culture during the holidays and year round. Families host and welcome lone soldiers, Holocaust survivors and international students to their homes. This Rosh Hashanah we implemented the hospitality concept right here in Chicago. We welcomed one another by opening up our hearts and lives to each other as guests and family, while shaping our own experience together.

There is a saying in Hebrew אם יש מקום בלב יש מקום " if there is a place in your heart you will find space". I believe that if there is room in your heart, you will ignore limitations and find a space to welcome others. When I think about this concept of hospitality and my own personal experience as an Israeli, my hope is to translate this into my work on campus as an Israel Fellow as we begin the new year. I want to inspire our students to connect with and create meaningful Jewish and Israel experiences and to own them. And through these experiences, to reach out to others, especially those they don't know. In making this effort they will always find partners and see they are not alone. My hope for the new year is that each student I reach will learn to implement the concept of hospitality wherever they go--not only on campus but also in other opportunities throughout their lives.

Shana Tova!

Crafting a new narrative

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By Emily Briskman
Director, Israel Education Center

Emily, fifth from right with this year's cohort at the Shalom Hartman Institute

I'm not usually one to proclaim having transformational experiences but this summer was a time of transformation in how I think about the next generation of Israel education. I was honored to be part of the 2nd group of Hillel/campus professionals chosen to study as a Cohort for 1 year with the Shalom Hartman Institute. Along with 12 colleagues from across the country, including Hillel executive directors and campus rabbis, we began our year of intensive study in Jerusalem at the Institute in order to discover a new language to engage with Israel on campus that goes "beyond the crisis narrative" and speaks to the values and priorities of young Jews as members of the Jewish people and a global society.  Because students today are so far removed from the narrative of 1967, Israel's existence isn't even a question in their minds.  International perception of Israel is important and we must continue to set the record straight but reality tells us that Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world, Israelis are a smart and innovative people and are capable of defending themselves.  So the imperative to "defend" or "fight for" Israel is no longer resonating with the majority of young Jews living in the Diaspora because they see Israel as a vital and successful country. 

This new reality presents both opportunities and challenges for the future of Israel /Diaspora relations.  The hope is that the new reality will be based on mutual cooperation and equality.  Israel and the Diaspora can and should work together as equal partners to shape the future of the Jewish people.  But how do we get there? 

In order to craft a new narrative that is based in Jewish wisdom but is modern in its approach we spent 8-10 hours per day in intense chevruta (traditional Rabbinical style of studying texts in pairs) and group discussion over portions of Torah, Talmud and modern texts.  Each related to Jewish values and themes including power, sovereignty, stewardship, covenant, victimization, identity and more.  Every theme built on the other and yet contained individual lessons that could be applied to any number of situations happening on campus and/or to us as individuals.  We were privileged to be exposed to experts who took their time to both learn with and teach us.  It was a humbling and motivating experience to say the least.  I really believe that to study and struggle with these themes is essential to creating a deep and meaningful relationship with the homeland of the Jewish people. 

So: How do we translate all of this to campus?  Just as Israel is a work in progress - so is this new narrative.  Over this academic year I will share some thought provoking themes and discussions from ancient and modern texts and hopefully we can learn to speak a new narrative together.

Theme 1 - Israel as a Holy Land?

Leviticus 25:14-15, 23

You shall count off seven weeks of years - seven times seven years - so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month - the Day of Atonement - you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the after growth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may eat only the growth direct from the field. In this year of jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years... But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

Questions to consider:

How do these directives about ownership and management of land help us think about Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people?

How do you interpret the last line?

It doesn’t end with Birthright

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By Samantha Altit, Lewis Summer Intern
Junior, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign                                                                                          
Bachelor of Science in Communication      

Samantha, second from left, at Masada

When I left the University of Illinois at the end of the school year I didn't realize that my summer was going to be all about Israel. I had amazing plans to visit Israel and afterwards be a part of JUF's Lewis Summer Internship program and work in the Israel Education Center (IEC).

My summer began by traveling to Israel on Birthright and I was very fortunate to be given this opportunity through the amazing trip provider Shorashim. My experience was much different than the other participants on the trip because my father is Israeli and I have been to Israel many times before. I already had a good understanding of the culture and language, and have visited some of the attractions on our itinerary. 

Our journey began when we boarded an El Al plane to Israel. We were definitely lucky to fly direct. Twelve hours later we landed in Tel Aviv-Yafo and headed directly for the Golan Heights, where we would spend our first weekend. Our first adventure was hiking in the Zavitan. This hike seemed to last forever and just when we thought we were going to pass out we reached a beautiful waterfall and everyone eagerly jumped right in. After the hike, we went back to Kibbutz Afik and prepared for Shabbat.

Sunday morning we listened to Israeli music as we headed to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was such a spiritual city and I was able to make a connection to Israel and Judaism during my time there. We visited Yad Vashem, and had a spectacular tour guide who shared stories about artifacts and heroes. Jerusalem will definitely be the place I will always remember.

We left Jerusalem early afternoon and our next stop was Tel Aviv. Exhausted, I forced myself to stay awake and look out the window at the beautiful scenery. When we arrived in Tel Aviv we got to spend time on the beaches and swim in the lovely Mediterranean ocean.

The following morning we drove south to the Negev, where most of my family lives. They came from Beer Sheba to have lunch with me. I hadn't seen my family in two years, so I was happy to spend time with them. Then we stopped at an elementary school in JUF's Partnership 2Gether region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir. We spent a few hours learning Hebrew while teaching the children English, and after we had a dance party with the entire school.

Next we were off to sleep in the Bedouin tents. We were rewarded by riding camels early the next morning up a mountain in the middle of the desert. It felt like we were waiting for Moses and our ancestors to appear. And the most amazing part of the trip was next: floating in the Dead Sea. Everyone rushed out to put mud on themselves and float in the sea. After the Dead Sea we drove a short distance to Ein Gedi. It was a short hike that led us to an amazing waterfall in the middle of the desert.   

As our trip came to an end, I knew this wouldn't be my last encounter with Israel. By traveling to Israel I was able to gain a new appreciation for the Jewish state and I now had a chance to use my knowledge and passion for Israel and give back to the community. I was about to go work at JUF's Israel Education Center for the rest of the summer as a Lewis Summer Intern and my internship immediately began when I returned home.

As an intern this summer I am completing a variety of projects such as: helping the IEC create a social media plan for the Israel Interns, crafting a strategy plan to fight against the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement on college campuses, planning an Israel event on campus for fall semester, and planning a post Birthright reunion in Chicago.

Also, as a Lewis Summer Intern I am given many opportunities to listen and learn from Jewish professionals in the Chicago-land area. I hope to take the skills I learn from JUF and the IEC and apply them to my coursework and in my future career.

This fall I want to go back to my campus and help promote Birthright--it's the best way to create your own personal connection to Israel. Also, through much hard work and devotion I know my work here this summer will have an impact on other college students and guide them in the right direction by helping them shape their own image of Israel and share that with others.

Now it is my turn to help other students find their connection to Israel. I plan to help encourage others to learn about Israel and become more involved with the Jewish community on campus. The IEC, Jewish community and Hillel have so much to offer and every Jewish student should take advantage of this great opportunity. I plan to go back to Israel for the spring semester to study abroad at Tel Aviv University. I am excited to go back on a new journey and find new adventures in a place I truly love.  

Write On for Israel Fellows 'paint and repaint'

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Twenty-seven Fellows in Write On for Israel, the premier Israel education and advocacy program for Chicago teens, sponsored by JUF's Israel Education Center, are midway through a 10-day fact-finding trip to Israel. Yesterday they attended the Presidential Conference on Tomorrow, in Jerusalem, where they heard Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Peres and many other luminaries speak on a wide range of topics. Throughout the trip, they have been meeting with top journalists, academic and tech leaders, as well as with people from all walks of life.

Nearly everyone the group has met, from former Prime Minister's spokeswoman Miri Eisen to Ha'aretz editor Aluf Benn and Chicago Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, has congratulated the group for their commitment to studying a wide range of issues in depth and to developing strategies to share their views with their peers and others.

In addition to a rigorous itinerary filled with meetings, the group has taken time to raft on the Jordan River, meet Israeli teens in Kiryat Gat and Katzrin, and more. The group will spend Shabbat in Jerusalem and wrap up the trip next week by meeting Foreign Ministry officials, more journalists and Palestinian teens.

Fellow Noah Shaffer, a rising senior at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, shared the following reflection on a single day's activities earlier this week:

Today was a day of painting and repainting pictures. We began the day in an upstairs room of the Metropolitan Hotel in Tel Aviv listening attentively to Miri Eisen, the former spokesperson for the Prime Minister. Throughout the interactive lecture,  Eisen crafted a scene for us; a scene of the increasing trouble that Israel has portraying herself and her policy. Eisen comically remarked that being the spokesperson for those policies was analogous to being crucified daily. The chuckles that escaped our mouths were short lived as she gave definitive examples of Israel's troubles.

For instance, Operation Cast Lead is, in Hebrew, a reference to a children's Chanukah jingle. However, "Cast Lead" evokes images of smoking guns and shrapnel.

Additionally, she spoke of the unprecedented David and Goliath comparisons made between the Palestinians and the Israelis, respectively. The Israeli soldiers who patrol covered head to toe in body armor and hard helmets play the Goliath, whereas the Palestinians wear civilian clothing and represent David. The contrast is, to the untrained eye, concrete. And this is the reason that the Israeli government is so dead-set on rebranding Israel.

Sadly--and this is another one of the challenges we as an advocacy program face--Israel is unable to be rebranded. The experts have spoken, and after multitudes of attempts, Israel seems forever stuck in the perceived position of a bully.

This has led to the attempt to rebrand certain, more specific, sections of Israel. Take Tel-Aviv, for example. It has certainly been rebranded, as even Bono can concur, for he frequents Tel-Aviv quarterly for parties.

These efforts to disseminate the most-positive portrayal of Israel were epitomized by our trip to the Channel 10 news room. We sat in the most technologically advanced newsroom in Israel and watched as a live broadcast was created. It was truly inspiring to watch true professionals craft a news-brief, and be able to send out to all of Israel the most up-to-date news. Our guide, Natalie, a producer at Channel 10,  informed us of the constant readiness necessary for the job. If significant events occur, there is a news anchor ready to--in literally two minutes--be in front of the cameras spreading the information to Israel's citizens. These journalists not only dedicate their time to their job of creating an image of Israel, they risk their livelihoods, as they fearlessly travel into incredibly dangerous areas in order to uncover the true image of Israel and unveil it to the people of Israel and the world.

As I said before, today was a day of painting and repainting, branding and rebranding. And by that I mean the image or brand of the State of Israel. What today revealed to me was the recognition of such need, and the true dedication of the Israeli people to solve this problem. More hard work than imaginable goes into their constant effort, and it was truly inspiring.