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.
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.
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.”
Clark students on the Birthright trip celebrate the beautiful view of the
Sea of Galilee on Mt. Arbel.
Twenty-three Clark University students went to Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel in December. This is only the third Israel trip through Clark, which is supported by Hillel International in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Greater Boston’s Federation) and Young Judaea.