Feature Stories

A Connection to Israel

clark hillel 3Clark Hillel Takes Students on
Taglit-Birthright Israel
By Laura Porter | Photos courtesy of Clark Hillel

WORCESTER – Seth Greenwald of Sharon has been passionate about Israel since he read Torah for his bar mitzvah on a Margaret Morse Tour with his extended family in 2008. “I just love Israel, as a nation, a culture, as something to study,” he says.
When he arrived on the Clark University campus as a freshman last September, he immediately became involved in Clark J Street U, Hillel and Clarkies Helping and Advocating for Israel (CHAI). Signing up for Clark University’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip at the end of December was “a no-brainer,” he says.
The 10-day trip, followed by a week’s extension spent exploring on his own, redefined his life. Not only is he looking for short-term opportunities to return – as often as possible – through Onward Israel and/or study abroad, but he also intends to join the IDF and make aliyah after he graduates from college.
“Birthright gave me a major hand up in my connection to Israel and to Judaism – and I already had a huge connection to Israel and to Judaism,” he says. The Clark Birthright program, supported by Hillel International in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Greater Boston’s Federation) and trip provider Young Judaea, is only eighteen months old. It has been a welcome addition to a campus with a significant Jewish population and active Jewish organizations across a range of interests and denominations.
Before the fall of 2012, Clark students had to join Birthright programs through other colleges or trip providers, a process that sometimes required applying several times. Approximately 15 students went every year, estimates David Coyne, executive director of Clark Hillel. That number has now tripled. Twenty-three Clark students went on the December trip alone, the third trip through Clark. (Two students came from WPI and the rest from colleges across the country.)
CJP’s Israel Campus Initiative (IACT) program, which began in 2007, funds full-time Israel Outreach Coordinators at 12 colleges in New England. The coordinators’ charge is to prepare students for Birthright trips, but also to maintain and encourage their connection to Israel after their return home.
Moreover, as part of the IACT program, CJP offers programming support and access to a grant-based Bus Enrichment Program. This last element gives partner campuses use of their own 40-person bus while in Israel – and the ability to fill that bus first with as many of their own students who wish to go.

Twenty-three Clark University students went to Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel in December.

Twenty-three Clark University students went to Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel in December.

The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts also plays a key role. Not only does JFCM contribute directly to Birthright Israel, but it also provides funding to Clark Hillel, a JFCM program, and serves as its fiscal agent. Without the Hillel infrastructure, there might not be CJP funding for IACT at Clark.
Hillary Kern is the Israel Outreach Coordinator at Clark.
“My goal is to recruit for Birthright and provide pre-trip and post-trip education surrounding Israel,” Kern says, who is from Los Angeles and graduated from Indiana University in 2010. “I staff the trips and work with all of the Israel groups on campus: Hillel Israel, Hillel’s Tikkun Olam Israel Zionism (TOIZ), CHAI, J Street.” She is also in contact with students at other colleges in the Worcester Consortium. She spends her days reaching out to students, chatting at Shabbat dinners, meeting them for coffee, and keeping Israel front and center on social media and in events she organizes on campus.
For Falk, that contact with Kern was the spur he needed to take a trip he had always planned to go on – someday.
Last fall, he happened to glance at Facebook on the last day of registration for the winter trip.
“Hillary Kern had posted, ‘come talk to me in the Bistro right now.’ I thought ‘yeah, right.’ And then I thought, ‘I want to go to Israel. Why not?’”
He walked the short distance to the Bistro in Clark’s University Center, introduced himself to Kern, and they made plans to have coffee the next day.
“Before she left the table,” Adam laughs, “I had called my mom and said, ‘I’m going to Israel.’”
Falk, a senior at Clark from Shelton, Connecticut, had been no stranger to Judaism before Birthright. His mother is a rabbi, and he attended a Solomon Schechter school for six years. He keeps kosher and was the “always-ready Torah reader” at his mother’s synagogue.
Before he went to Israel, however, “being Jewish wasn’t on the top of my personal identity resume,” he says. “I didn’t have the feeling of peoplehood that I do now.” The trip’s itinerary included hiking in the north of Israel, climbing Masada and swimming in the Dead Sea, visiting Yad Vashem and celebrating Shabbat and Havdallah in Jerusalem.
For many of the Clark students on the trip, the highlight was interacting with the eight young Israelis, either students or active members of the IDF, who joined them for several days during the trip. “They have heard lots of propaganda about the Israeli military,” Kern said. “Now they meet real soldiers and discover how similar they are – they like the same music, the same television shows. The Israelis are able to answer their questions about the IDF, what life was like during the wars, the second Intifada.”
Moreover, Young Judaea includes an evening for the American students to go home with their Israeli friends for a meal, giving them the chance to meet their families and see what it is really like to live in Jerusalem, surrounded by history.
“Other trips don’t do this,” says Kern. “ And it was very impactful on the students. They don’t realize how great it is until they go.”
Seth Greenwald found that he became an even stronger pro-Israel activist on this return trip to Israel. During his weeklong extension, he stayed with a close friend who was serving in intelligence in the IDF, an experience that “gave me new insight into why Israel needs to exist,” he says. Now working as an intern for Birthright, he plans on future visits and to continue to improve his Hebrew in preparation for making aliyah one day.
The connections among students on Birthright trips can be strong and meaningful, and the Clark students who traveled together are able to tighten those bonds on campus. “There are now 23 kids I can go to for anything,” says Greenwald.
Inevitably, the Birthright alumni serve as recruits for future trips, and both David Coyne and Hillary Kern attest to the widespread impact of Birthright on campus.
On Feb. 7, Hillel sponsored an Israel Shabbat that drew almost all of the recent travelers and doubled the usual Shabbat dinner attendance. “It benefits the Clark campus as a whole,” says Kern. “Students are coming back with a sense of pride in their Jewishness and that spreads to their friends. Ultimately, says David Coyne, offering Taglit-Birthright Israel through Clark “takes the connection to the land and people of Israel and moves it to a more central place for the Jewish community at Clark.”


Reflections of Israel
UMass Hillel Birthright Trips are Life-Changing

By Stacey Dresner

AMHERST – University of Massachusetts Hillel continues in its longstanding mission to take students on life-changing trips to Israel. In January, UMass Hillel recruited and accompanied 93 students to Israel on UMass group trips to Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel. The January trips included two Birthright Israel trips for 80 students who had not previously been on a group trip to Israel, and a community service trip to a Druze community for 13 students who had been to Israel previously.
“All these experiences were, in the words of our students, amazing,” said Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, director of UMass Hillel.
Perlmutter said that this is just the beginning.
“In addition to January, we are planning to take two more buses this summer on Birthright, which will be another 80 students. And we will be taking 16 students during Spring Break to Israel on a Jewish National fund community service trip,” Perlmutter said.
Last year, UMass Hillel took 180 students to Israel on UMass group trips, making it one of the most active Hillels taking students on campus organized trips to Israel.
“These trips are a very important part of our mission,” Perlmutter said. “It makes a huge difference to the individual students, especially the Birthright trips. We try to take students with minimal connection to Jewish life so far and as a result of these trips, they feel a connection to the Jewish people, to Israel and to Jewish life on campus that they never felt previously. It is truly life-changing.”
For the 13 students from UMass who went on a 10-day program with Yahel – Israel Service Learning, volunteering in the Druze village of Maghar, working with the local non-profit organization Horizons for the Future, the experience was eye-opening.

The following is an article written by Seth Engelbourg, one of the participants on the UMass Hillel Yahel Insight Program:
Over winter break, 13 students from the University of Massachusetts elected to participate in a service-learning program located in Maghar, Israel. This ten-day program was run as a partnership between three organizations: UMass Hillel, Yahel, and Horizons for the Future (Ofekim L’Atid).
What distinguished this trip from other service projects was the intense level of cross-cultural exchange. As an organization, Yahel works with minority groups in Israel, but this was the first time that they ran the program together with the Druze community. The Druze are an Arab minority religious group in Israel who live in several villages spread throughout the North, in areas such as the Galilee and Golan Heights.
During the trip, participants from UMass lived with Druze host families in Maghar. These hosts, along with many other members of the Druze community, volunteered alongside the UMass students, participated in learning sessions, and accompanied the group on a trip to the shrine of the Druze prophet Nabi Shu’ayb.
In addition to formal interactions, students from UMass and Druze locals ate meals together, got to know each other through casual conversation and went out together at night.

UMass students worked with Druze youth to clean up this school courtyard in the village of Maghar.

UMass students worked with Druze youth to clean up this school courtyard in the village of Maghar.

Our service project was to build an ecological garden at the vocational high school in Maghar. This included planting trees, building an entrance path, creating chairs and tables from old tires and painting murals. When we started the project, the ‘garden’ was nothing but a vacant lot full of trash and overgrown weeds.
However, in just one week the students from UMass and Maghar accomplished a feat that we are all incredibly proud of. The end result was a beautiful garden springing with life that will be of great use to the community in the future, both as a resource to produce fruits and vegetables but more importantly as a place where people can sit together, learn, relax and enjoy nature.
Yet, the true importance of this experience was not the finished garden we created. It was working alongside the Druze, trying to communicate in three languages (Arabic, Hebrew, and English) and learning about the culture and religion of a community that few people know much about.
Within Israel the Druze and Jews have a longstanding amicable relationship. The positive relationship is in no small part due to the loyalty of the Druze to the country where they live and the fact that most Israeli Druze men complete mandatory military service. However, the basis for interactions between Druze and Jewish Israelis is often limited to relationships on an institutional level – in the army or at the office of a hi-tech company. Many Jewish Israelis that I spoke to had served together with Druze in their military units or visited a Druze village for a taste of their famously delicious foods, but when I asked them how much they really know about the Druze, most would say quite little.
Therefore, those of us from UMass were in many ways pioneers. Not only did we participate in the first ever Yahel program with the Druze, but also by going to Maghar we went to a place where many Israelis have never been or know about. To me this was incredibly powerful.
Three years ago I lived in Israel for a yearlong program. As part of this program I visited Daliyat Al-Karmel, one of the most well-known Druze villages. Looking back on this experience, I can now tell that it was superficial. We ate Druze food and visited a Druze market but learned nothing of their culture or history.
During my Yahel experience, we went much deeper. We lived in Druze homes and collaborated with Druze community members on a day-to-day basis. It was definitely eye opening. This program helped me see Israel in a new way, not through a tour bus but through the eyes of a minority community.
One of the best parts about doing a service-learning project in a foreign community is that the line between who is giving and who is receiving becomes blurred. To me the definition of effective community exchange is having an ambiguous give-receive relationship. Yes, we volunteered our time and services to create an ecological garden for the Maghar community. Yet they also opened their houses, provided us with food, and shared valuable information about Druze customs and lifestyles.
During the program I did not feel like I was serving the community, but rather collaborating with locals to help them serve their own needs. This point was accentuated by the level to which community members volunteered their time, goods and services to help us complete the garden. Even people who seemingly had no vested interest in our project were willing to help out. Construction companies donated gravel and sand, artists came to give advice on the murals, and local press came to promote our project to the news. None of these people were asked to do so or were offered compensation.
They simply wanted to help because it was the right thing to do. To me this is the paragon of service.
And although the garden turned out to be great, that was sort of a side effect.
Even if the finished product had not turned out as we had hoped, the sheer cooperation between diverse peoples made this trip unforgettable.
Although creating the garden was the main focus of the trip, there also were other interesting aspects. These included a tour of Maghar on the first day (including the olive oil press), a visit to the shrine of Nabi Shuib, a hike at Mount Arbel, and excursion to Tzfat and a stay at Kibbutz Hanaton for Shabbat. Additionally, throughout the trip we engaged in thought-provoking learning sessions both with the Druze and without. These sessions focused on different topics including Judaism, Israel, and Druze relations. One interesting session was when we watched The Syrian Bride, a movie that focuses on issues surrounding the Druze living in the Golan.
I am happy that I decided to participate in this program. I could have done nearly anything on my winter break, worked, relaxed, studied, etc. However, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that allowed me to interact firsthand with a community that most people I know may never have a chance to and for that I am thankful.

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