Student leader reflects on a trip to Israel

Ramkiran Venkat, an Israel intern at the University of Cincinnati, traveled to Israel on a student leadership delegation last year.

I remember the exact feeling I had last year one year ago. Finals week was beginning and was filled with copious amounts of exams, papers and projects. 

Unlike this year, I had a completely different mindset. To be honest, finals weren't a priority. I had so many emotions knowing that in a few short weeks I would be on a plane to Israel, a country I was very unfamiliar about. You could describe my feelings as anxiety, excitement and fear, but the biggest feeling I felt was curiosity. 

Outside of my own research and our debriefings with our group leader, a close friend to this day, I really had no idea what Israel was like. The mainstream media often highlighted the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but at the time I never really paid attention. I remember from my world history class in high school learning about the uproar that occurred after the Hamas took control in 2006 and how it set forth intensified conflict on the Gaza strip. I remember the sense of anxiety my parents had as I told them about the trip and my desire to go and the phone calls trying to get me to reconsider the trip. 

To be honest, going into the trip I had a very negative perception of Israel. I remember our first day in Tel Aviv, getting off the bus and seeing IDF soldiers, who looked only a bit older if not the same age as me at the time, weapons by their side. Now when this is the first time you are in a completely foreign country, this is more than just intimidating, I thought my world was turning upside down. 

As the trip started, I often felt as if my original thoughts of the dangers, hostility and conflict in Israel were true as I remember our group meeting with activists from Sderot and feeling the fear in their words as they talked about preparing for random attacks that had once occurred on a daily basis to seeing the Gaza strip and imagining all the violence that took place in such a close proximity. To this day, one of the most heartbreaking days of the trip was when our group traveled to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. 

At first, I had no idea what to expect. I had been to Holocaust museums before and I thought I understood what actually had happened. As the walk through the museum continued, I remember forcing myself to drag my feet to keep walking, my heart in the bottom of my stomach like an anchor, pulling me down. I remember the moment I lost all control of my emotions, as we continued to walk and when I looked down I realized I was walking over a glass box filled with children's shoes. Not hundreds, but thousands of shoes from children who had lost their lives from gas chambers or being murdered. As the visit continued, I felt as if there was no way I could feel a sense of happiness until we left. That moment changed when one of trip leaders was able to locate the ancestry of one of his relatives, you could not only see, but also feel the sense of pride, gratitude and happiness they had felt just from that piece of paper. 

I noticed that even though so much of conflict has occurred, Israelis walk the streets with their head held high. Israelis walk with such a sense of pride and appreciation for their country. There was so much emotion, passion and loyalty from our tour guides in various museums and even to restaurant owners presenting us their cuisine. In fact, there was so much to be proud of, the first night I remember walking the streets of Tel Aviv and seeing the streets lit, the shops open and music around every block. I remember the love one of my close friends had for Aroma coffee because it was Israel's and only Israel's. 

I remember talking with a Schwarma shop owner and how was he beaming that I was from America and eating one of his Schwarma. Boy, I miss that Schwarma. I remember talking with a blanket shop owner and among our conversations about life, science and our cultures.

My favorite memory from our trip was the "Shabbat of a Lifetime" where we were traveled to the Western Wall and spent time at the Kotel, followed by Sabbath dinner with host families. The excitement, the passion and the curiosity these families had for our lives showed me that just as we were curious about Israel, they were just as curious about our lives in the states. As our trip wrapped up at the Dead Sea and a Kibbutz, I finally felt calm and at ease from our time in Israel. Perhaps it could have been the mud from the Dead Sea calming me down, but also the sense of warmth sitting around the fire at the Kibbutz hearing stories from our Israeli fellows. 

I found myself smiling through writing this, as it brought back so many memories that I hold so dearly. When I returned from my trip to Israel, I was skeptical to how involved I would be with the Israeli community at Cincinnati, as well as how it would impact the rest of my college experience. 

When I got back to campus, I found myself sharing my experience with students from all sorts of campus backgrounds and organizations. I found myself taking my experiences back to my own communities and having conversations about my experiences. I stayed connected through Hillel through some close friends I had met on the trip, which prompted me to want to continue my Israel experience this year as an intern. From this opportunity, I know I will be able to connect various aspects of campus to the Israel community and experiences that I had. There are so many similarities between different campus groups that I felt an obligation to strengthen these relationships before I graduate. 

This year has rapidly gone by, I can't help but be a little jealous for my friends who will be traveling to Israel in just a few short weeks. In my ten short days in Israel, I learned not only so much about Israel and its history, but also myself and my own personal growth. I don't know when I will be back in Israel, but I do hope it is sooner than later. The country has created so many warm and joyful memories in my life, that it would be unfair to never go back to the place that has given me so much. 


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