By Karen Podorefsky
During this past winter break, I led and took part in a transformative experience with forty college students. Twice a year, I witness the influential powers of a Taglit Birthright Israel trip.
As the IACT Coordinator at Clark University Hillel, I lead the Worcester area campus Birthright trips, plan and facilitate Israel programming, and ensure that students feel that they have a space to be Jewishly engaged on campus. Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) launched the IACT initiative in 2007, and it is now on 28 university campuses nationwide. “Inspired, Active, Committed, Transformed” accurately describes many students upon their return home from a Birthright trip, as well as my outlook on how to conduct student engagement.
Taglit Birthright Israel is a free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26, combining a touristy, cultural, historical, and immersive experience. Too often, young adults participate in this incredible opportunity, but don’t have the outlet when they return home to continue to explore what they learned in the whirlwind of a week and a half. IACT enables professionals to create and assist students in making use of or creating these opportunities on their own college campuses.
Clark University’s Birthright trip included 19 students from Clark, seven from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), one Becker College student, and one student from Quinsigamond Community College. This was the highest number of Worcester area students on their designated trip yet, while the remainder of the trip included students from other universities across the country. A unique advantage of a campus trip is that students return home and within a week are reunited with their friends with whom they shared such a special experience. It is inspiring for me to watch students experience new places and discover new ideas with people who they barely knew on day one, but feel like family just a few days later. The students generally return to campus feeling a stronger connection to one another and to the Jewish community at large.
In addition to sightseeing, a lot of time is reserved for guided conversations about Jewish identity with the understanding that everyone comes from different backgrounds, some having never celebrated Jewish holidays, while others are able to lead a Shabbat service, for example.
“There is no one-size-fits-all template to being a Jew in this world,” said Clark sophomore Jason Fehrnstrom. “I hope I can make my own path in my religious exploration and find a way of practicing Judaism that works for me. I changed the way I think about my ancestry and faith. Hearing the amazing, improbable ways people arrived in Israel and started their lives was inspiring and motivates me to learn more about the experience of the Jewish people.”
A significant aspect of the trip is the eight Israeli soldiers who join each group for at least five days. They are not there as a security measure, but rather to befriend the participants. This enables students to feel a more personal connection to the people of Israel, in addition to the land.
Clark University first year student Emma Landsman explains that “the most influential part of this trip was the group dynamic and making friends. In addition to all of the culture, religion, history, shopping, and hiking that I was exposed to, what made the experience so special was the people. Having the opportunity to travel and learn in a group is very moving. My new American friends and the IDF soldiers really made the trip unforgettable. I now have friends I can visit if I go back to Israel, thanks to the connections we made with the soldiers on our Birthright trip. I like to think that it is the people who help make the memories.” Landsman is planning to return to Israel this summer to do an internship through a program called Onward Israel that sets students up with a professional internship in their field of study. Sponsored by CJP, students have the opportunity to live and work with other students in Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem.
Students are often pleasantly surprised by how the trip exceeds their expectations. They know it will be a fun and adventurous ten days, but many don’t understand the impact it will have until they experience it, sometimes not even until they return home.
“Birthright has changed me personally in so many ways,” said Clark sophomore Rachel Laider. “I have become more adventurous and ready to try new things whenever I am given the opportunity. I also have never felt more connected to my Judaism. I have always been proud to be part of the Jewish community, but being able to see another part of this community was incredible.”
Though I have traveled to Israel many times and have led several trips, each trip is special in its own way. While the itineraries slightly differ season to season, I learn something different through the students every trip. Their first (or sometimes second, or even third) experience in Israel teaches me something new. I feel like I am experiencing Israel for the first time again and again through their eyes, in a new perspective.
Aaron Madow, a first year student at Clark reflected, “When we were at Masada, I looked at the mountains and thought of how they’ve transcended time and structure. So many civilizations have laid claim to these mountains but they’ve always lasted. Nature always persisted. It reminds me of Judaism and how it’s very similar to nature. It’s transcended thousands of years through various civilizations trying to lay claim to the land.”
The beauty of travel, in general, is that there is so much history behind everywhere we go. Whether that history is from important events in the past or present, or an area that will have influence in the future, a traveler makes their mark, their footprint, on history and also steps on previous stomping ground.
“Being in a place as protean and active as Israel made me realize that there is a lot to learn about the world,” said Clark first year student Sylvan Norris. “It inspired me to read more about the world and to be more knowledgeable and well-read. Seeing a Syrian city from the top of Mt. Bental was the most influential part of the trip. It was eye-opening.”
Each student is on the same trip, stays in the same hotels, goes to the same sights, and eats generally the same foods, but absorbs the teachings, lessons, scenery, and overall experience differently. Birthright can be the first step in someone’s personal Jewish journey, and it can be an addition to a story that has already begun. The trip can steer someone in a new direction or confirm the path in which they were headed. I have learned to never underestimate the power of self-exploration through the influence of my students.
Karen Podorefsky is IACT Coordinator/Israel Programs Coordinator at Clark University.