Program sends Jewish students to Israel

The trip was completely funded by Taglit-Birthright Israel program.

Melinda Feucht

While many Minnesota students engaged in outdoor activities over winter break, 25 Jewish college students, along with others from across the nation, were riding bikes in the valleys near the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

The trip was provided by Hillel, the University’s Jewish Student Center, and funded completely by Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The Taglit-Birthright Israel program is supported by the Israeli government, private philanthropists and individual Jewish communities. It requires participants to be between the ages of 18 and 26, have one Jewish parent and identify themselves as Jewish. To be eligible, participants must never have been to Israel on a trip before.

The application process involves an interview where the applicant is asked to answer questions about what Judaism means to them. Although there is a religious component, the tour is a pluralistic trip with no religious agenda.

Rafi Samuels-Schwartz, a two-time trip facilitator and Hillel’s senior Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow, said the program’s inclusiveness is one of its highlights.

“It was a chance for students to explore their Judaism on their own terms rather than go to synagogue with their family,” Samuels-Schwartz said.

One of the most profound and significant effects of the trip occurred when students who didn’t have any connection to their own Judaism began to plug into that sentiment, he added.

Rebecca Hammer, an environmental science policy and management sophomore, is a perfect example. She reconnected to her history as a participant of the trip, she said.

Growing up with few Jewish friends, Hammer said she felt disconnected from the Jewish community because she wasn’t involved in the religion and heritage.

“It made me feel more connected to my history,” she said of the trip. “Now I can be more open about it.”

Samuels-Schwartz noted the sense of community the trip fostered for the group of student travelers.

“Largely, it’s composed of a group of strangers, who, over the trip, really are able to form and grow as a community,” he said.

Students from the University joined with one Hamline University student, Twin Cities community college students and students from Milwaukee and Tulsa, Okla.

Being with students from schools other than the University creates a good dynamic, Samuels-Schwartz said.

“It gives them the true impression that their community is not something that is necessarily defined geographically; it’s more than that,” he said.

The students toured both historical and modern sites, including the Bedouin region, the Sea of Galilee, the city of Jerusalem and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.

A large portion of Israel’s livelihood is based on the tourism industry, Samuels-Schwartz said, and there was a sense of appreciation on part of the Israelis as they saw the students come to visit and engage in the country.

The students were also joined by 10 Israeli students who attend a college in Jordan Valley, two staff facilitators, one tour educator and one medic/guard.

“There is no silver bullet as far as fostering Jewish identity in the millennial generation, but I think this trip is one of the most profound ways to have students facilitate their own dialogue with themselves about what it means to be Jewish,” Samuels-Schwartz said. “I’d be hard pressed to find something that can do it so effectively and profoundly.”