Trip connects Jewish students to heritage, fosters pride in Judaism

Fabiana Torreao

A single candle burns in the middle of a dark room surrounded by mirrors; thousands of candles are reflected. A woman’s voice is heard listing names and ages of people who died in the holocaust.
This image is Alissa Smith’s most intriguing memory of her trip to Israel last winter through the University’s Jewish Student Center.
Smith, a family social science sophomore, was one of 21 University students who spent 11 days in Israel last January during Hillel’s birthright trip.
“I never really felt a connection to Israel until I went on this trip,” Smith said. “It made me feel that I’m not only a part of a big group of people, I’m not just another Jew, but that this is my family.”
Twenty University students will join approximately 4,000 students from 274 other American universities in this year’s Hillel-sponsored trip.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity. It really is a free trip,” said Amy Olson, director of the University’s Hillel Foundation.
The ten-day trips are funded by a $210 million, 5-year-long partnership of philanthropists, the Israeli government, and Jewish communities that share the belief that a trip to Israel is the birthright of every Jew.
The first trip, last January, took 3,000 students to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and other historical sites. Students also had a chance to meet with Israeli peers and participate in an archeological dig.
Applicants need to be 18- to 26-year-old Jewish students who have never been to Israel on a group trip. Participants will be selected by a lottery next month.
Josh Bergeron, an architecture junior, is applying this year after not being selected last year. He said the trip would connect him to his heritage.
“It’s one thing to hear about it or to read about it, but it is such a different thing to actually experience it,” Bergeron said.
After coming back from her trip, Smith said she tries to connect every aspect of her life to Judaism. The trip also increased her Jewish pride. She now wears a necklace with her Jewish name, Devorah.
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Established in 500 campuses, it offers programs and events to support students and share the Jewish culture. The center is open to all students.
Although Olson had gone to Israel prior to chaperoning students last January, she had a different experience seeing young Jews connect with their land.
“It was very exciting to be (in Israel) with a group of people who hadn’t been there before,” she said. “You can kind of see it for the first time again through their eyes.”

Fabiana Torreao welcomes comments at [email protected]