There comes a time in everyone's life when a major shakeup is necessary. So often many of our lives become completely absorbed with the normalcy of our routines, our social circles, and the familiarity of what surrounds us. But what happens when we're pulled from the comfortable, the familiar, and we encounter the lives of others living in completely different circumstances? What is the impact and how do we orient ourselves in response?
For nine non-Jewish students from Illinois, this opportunity was given to them when visiting Israel for the first time in their lives.
This past Friday these students along with Israel Education Center staff returned from a 10-day trip that can only be described as the following: rigorous yet fulfilling, exhausting yet not enough, intense yet exhilarating, mentally overwhelming yet thought provoking. For many of these student leaders who come from campuses without Hillels or a significant Jewish student body this experience provided them the opportunity to re-evaluate their perceptions.
Our first day landed us in Jerusalem and immediately began immersing the group in the political, religious, and social complexities of what I would consider the most significant city in the world. Our group met with students from Hebrew University and learned what life is like for young Israelis who have already served in the IDF, traveled abroad, and are just now beginning their studies. Meetings with M.K. Einat Wilf in the Knesset and Paul Hirschon, deputy spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, gave us access to the domestic and international issues that Israel grapples with on a day-to-day basis. A visit to Hand in Hand School, which integrates Israeli Arabs and Jews together within the classroom, gave students pause when considering the fact that the educational system in Israel operates much differently than anything they have been accustomed to in the U.S.
Visits to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Quarters including the Temple Mount, Church of Holy Sepulchre, and the Kotel brought us into the heart and soul of why Jerusalem is so significant. Shifting from site to site—from prayers uttered at the Western Wall to quiet tension on the Temple Mount to the perplexity over the significance of one unmovable ladder at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—these drastic shifts of perspective caused all of us to re-orient ourselves to a completely different set of viewpoints and circumstances.
On Friday the students were able to experience their first Shabbat meal with host families in Jerusalem. The students returned invigorated by the opportunity to simply talk with regular Israelis, learn what their lives consist of, engage in different conversations, and returned excited about the relationships an d friendships formed in those encounters.
From the exhilarating heights of Masada to the depths of the Dead Sea and on to New Year's Eve in Tel Aviv, our group transitioned from some of the most intensive discussions about various issues in Jerusalem to ringing in the New Year on the dance floor just off of the Mediterranean Sea. We sat in the room where Ben Gurion declared independence, met with Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and discussed the future of the region and Iran's role in the ever shifting landscape of the Middle East. The students were exposed to the protest movement that took place over the summer and learned about the movement's issues firsthand when meeting with one of the student leaders of the protest.
In the Golan our group visited an army base and talked with a number of IDF soldiers about what it was like to serve in the military just after high school. One of the soldiers recounted a moment when he realized how much responsibility was being placed on him in his position. While stationed near the border of Lebanon sitting in the tight and uncomfortable quarters of a tank he realized that it was because he was there in that place and time that his friends and family could go about their daily lives in safety and security. At the time he was around 19 years old.
Students hiked Mt. Meron in the Golan, visited the tranquility of the Christian Sites at the Sea of Galilee, and visited Christians in Fassouta, including a meeting with the former mayor, George Ayoub. Layers of complexities were discussed— how do Israeli-Arabs identify themselves and where do Christian Arabs find themselves within this identity?
One of the most impactful visits of the trip was Sderot, which for the group left an indelible mark. We met with a father who had lost his daughter to a rocket attack from Gaza. We experienced just a fraction of what life looks and feels like when you have only 20 seconds to drop everything and run to a bomb shelter. What happens in the minds and hearts of children when they grow up with this fear every single day of their lives? One man recounted the fact that when traveling out of the country, no matter where he stays, he places his shoes by the doorway in preparation for a siren. We looked at the collection of rockets stored in Sderot, felt the rudimentary shape of their makeup, and could only feel overwhelmed.
After coming back from this trip and speaking with a few of the students, this experience was truly one of those moments that shakes up one's perception on life. For each of these students, myself included, we were given a very special opportunity to see, feel, and live in the shoes of Israelis. Students were left with a wealth of ideas and conversations to ponder for the rest of their lives: what does the Jewish connection to Israel mean, how do Israelis live, how do they deal with not only external threats in the region but with domestic issues, what is the state of Jewish-Arab relations and why is it that way, what do Israelis think of the peace process, how do leaders of the country pave the way to success, what is life like when serving in the military at such a young age, what are Israeli's hopes, their dreams, their fears, and so much more. To live out this experience is undoubtedly life changing.
When I returned home this weekend and attempted to process all of this, I opened up an article in JUF News written by our Judaic Scholar, Rabbi Poupko. In the article Poupko drives home a very powerful point. He asks all of us to question the way we respond to astonishing accomplishment. He reminds us that so often every person stands in the presence of something great and questions how it makes them feel or if it lives up to their expectations. Israel is one of the most significant examples of how our perception of such a powerful place needs to be readjusted— shaken up. Poupko calls on all of us in that moment that we have an "encounter with something really important" to pause and consider what should be asked of ourselves.
Without a doubt this trip provided us with that moment. We are left with a deeper awareness and understanding of a people and a place that forces us to step outside of ourselves, to re-orient our perceptions—and to truly consider the powerful significance of the nation of Israel.