Jewish students continue planning trips to Israel

Despite some safety concerns, most students believe that visiting their homeland is an important life experience.

by Sarah Connor

Despite the intense fighting that shook Gaza this summer, most Jewish students at the University of Minnesota are not letting the potential danger get in the way of visiting their homeland.

University Jewish organizations are recruiting students for this year’s trips to Israel. And while some students and their families have hesitations about traveling to the area, most say the importance of experiencing their homeland outweighs any possibility of danger.

Each year, thousands of Jewish young people travel to the area for Birthright Israel — a free 10-day trip to experience and learn about the country. University Jewish organizations work with the international organization to help students plan their trips.

Rabbi Yitzi Steiner, co-director of Chabad, a University Jewish student group, said although students and parents have expressed concerns about safety, the group is trying to reassure students that it’s safe to visit Israel by educating them about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“Part of what we need to do is [help students] feel confident [about visiting Israel] and also safe,” Steiner said. “And the only way to do that is by educating them and explaining to them what’s going on there.”

Benjie Kaplan, director of Hillel, a Jewish student center at the University, said like Chabad, Hillel is encouraging students to go on the Birthright Israel trip, and that for many years, the program has had no incidents.

“Birthright and Hillel take security very seriously,” he said, adding that the program has an excellent safety record.

Steiner said he was in Israel this summer during the “heat of it all” and is assuring students that they shouldn’t worry and the area is safe to visit.

Eliav Perez, Hillel’s fellow from the Jewish Agency for Israel, acknowledged students’ concerns about the potential dangers in Israel but said, “If you are Jewish, Israel is probably the safest place you can be,” noting that security guards and trained medics accompany each group.

The Birthright Israel trip also does not include tours to Gaza, according to its website, but schedule changes are possible when permitted by security authorities.

Campus Jewish organizations are using the attention surrounding the conflict to educate students and share Israel’s “side of the story,” said Ezra Strohm, vice president of Hillel.

Throughout the school year, Hillel plans to work with the University student group Students Supporting Israel and other community Jewish groups to provide on-campus discussions about the conflict and its effects on the Jewish community, Kaplan said.

Even though some hesitations linger, most students say the allure of visiting their homeland to further explore their religion and background triumphs over safety concerns.

Strohm said his two visits to Israel have helped him connect with his culture in a way that no other experience could do.

“When you go to Jerusalem, you’re able to actually see and touch and feel all the things that you’ve been learning about and all the important aspects of the Jewish religion,” he said.