By Karen Podorefsky
This past winter break, from Dec. 28 through Jan. 8, 38 students, twelve of the students attending either Clark, WPI, or Worcester State, participated in the Clark University Birthright Israel trip through Israel Outdoors.
Birthright is a free trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. It was created in order to send Jewish young adults from all over the world to Israel to strengthen individuals within the Jewish community, in their Jewish identity, and in their connection to the Jewish people and land of Israel. For ten days, participants explore Israel’s natural beauty and experience the bustling cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and much more.
Upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the group had a full itinerary traveling the country from North to South. The variety of activities caters to a wide range of interests, and provides a chance to learn and grow through education, interactions, and experiences. Participants have different expectations of what they want to get out of the trip, and each in turn has a different experience and feels a different impact. Students from different backgrounds have the opportunity to go on Birthright and they experience the same trip differently. The students on this trip are from diverse Jewish backgrounds, ranging from those with observant families to those having little knowledge of Jewish history or religious practice or having just one parent who is Jewish.
Through daytime-scheduled excursions and evening programming with group discussions, the program has the potential to influence students’ outlook on Judaism, Israel, and the way they want to live their lives. One student from the University of Missouri shared, during the closing circle at the end of the trip, that he learned that Judaism is whatever you want it to be, that there is no one right way to be Jewish. He asked many thought-provoking questions during the trip and found answers that helped shape his own experience and allowed him to come to this conclusion. Other students had similar experiences.
“Prior to Birthright I was struggling to define my Jewish identity, which became increasingly clear as the trip progressed. Discussing familial traditions relating to Judaism with Israeli peers, and finding that my level of religiousness was paralleled in Israeli households, helped me to both recognize and feel comfortable with the difference between being culturally Jewish and being observant,” said Clark second-year student Talia Ginsburg.
Birthright is designed to maximize time and relationships among young Jews. Throughout the time hiking and exploring Israel’s outdoor beauty, shopping, eating ethnic foods, and exploring religion, politics, tourism, and Israeli culture, it is inevitable that students learn through each experience.
In addition to the average bus full of 40 participants, two American staff, an Israeli tour guide, and one or two medics/security guards, every group is also assigned eight Israeli soldiers for roughly half the trip to befriend and learn from. The soldiers are not there for protection. These soldiers have been chosen to miss time at their base in order to join Birthright groups. Their presence and engagement is important in understanding that, though they are the same age as participants, they live a very different life. In Israel, most students go straight from high school to the Israel Defense Forces, and then on to college to further their education if they so choose. The conversations between Americans and Israelis are powerful and they quickly become friends, emphasizing the bond that often forms so quickly within the group.
“The first thing I really learned was that kids my age go straight to the army. I knew that already but actually meeting them made it real,” said Clark first-year student Nika Sandal. “Hearing them talk about dedicating their lives for two or three years to serve their country, showed a sense of unity and connection that I definitely don’t think we have [in the US]. It impacted me because it felt like strangers were family simply because we were Jewish. Living in America, I felt, taught me to be motivated for myself and to move myself forward, whereas being in Israel it felt like a family working together to make things better for everyone.”
As an educational trip, participants also discussed Israeli current events with each other and learned through speakers. “What I got was a better understanding of how to approach the [Israeli-Palestinian] issue using empathy and an understanding of individual narratives. I also got a better picture of the average civilian’s perspective . . . and honestly that way of looking at the conflict affected my way of thinking in general. It solidified that form of empathizing in my brain,” said Clark second-year student Nick Gilfor.
Traveling with a large group of students for 10 days can seem daunting, but when everyone has a connection of Judaism and the opportunity to learn from the experiences and each other, what seems like a large group has the potential to turn into a small close-knit family. Depending on the trip, students may or may not already know each other. In the case of this Clark trip, some students were familiar with each other, some were already friends, and others did not know anyone. By facilitating conversations about what we see, hear, and do, participating in these dialogues inherently builds the strong relationships that allows for different and new thinking, and openness about heritage, identity, and Judaism in general.
CAP: Karen Podorefsky (holding the sign) with THE Clark University students she accompanied to Israel on Birthright Israel last month.
Karen Podorefsky is Clark University Israel Programs Coordinator.
Originally from Hopkinton, she studied Journalism and Education at UMass Amherst, graduating in 2015. While at UMass, Karen was involved in several organizations including UMass Hillel. She went on four trips to Israel to travel, learn, and volunteer, which shaped her career goals and drove her to work at the Clark Hillel. She is excited to work with and inspire students about Israel, Judaism, and planning events on campus.
As the Israel Programs Coordinator, Karen recruits Clark University students to go on Birthright Israel trips and then leads them on these trips during both the winter and summer breaks. She maintains close relationships with students who participate and assists them, along with other students who are ineligible to participate in Birthright, in finding other ways to engage with and return to Israel. Some of the other trips Karen assists students with include service-learning trips, summer internships, study abroad, and religiously affiliated programs.
She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org ; by phone at (508) 245-0564 or on Facebook: (https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100010991911741).