JNF Wire: America's Student Leaders Discover Another Side of Israel
January 8, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
America’s Student Leaders Discover Another Side of Israel
By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod
Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission with Be'er Sheva
Mayor Ruvik Danilovich (front center in blue sweater).
For 39 college campus leaders from across America, there was nowhere better to spend winter break this year than in Israel. Surprisingly, they’re not Jewish; none had even visited Israel before. What made them drop everything and cross the ocean with Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership mission? Most came for the simplest of reasons: an earnest desire to see the country for themselves, and to uncover the truth behind the headlines.
Now in its fifth year, "Caravan for Democracy" doesn’t have a particular agenda but, according to Florida’s JNF Israel Advocacy & Education Area Director Daniel Klein, it aims to give students first-hand knowledge and space to come to their own conclusions. “We try to have the participants see the country not based on the media, not based on what their friends tell them, and not what they learn in class,” Klein said. “We want them to learn about the situation on the ground, from the people who are living it every day.”
Most were surprised that Israel’s story is deeper and richer than they ever imagined. The 10-day tour led the students from a kibbutz in Northern Israel to Be’er Sheva in the south, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Along the way, they visited Christian holy sites, toured the Technion’s “start-up university,” volunteered with at an urban farm, were hosted in Druze and Bedouin homes, climbed Masada, and chatted with high-tech leaders in Tel Aviv. The trip, co-sponsored by Media Watch International has generous funding from the Milton Shapiro Scholarship Fund, David Stein, Joan and Samuel Ginsburg, Alan Fisher and Barbara Sommer, and the JNF Boruchin Israel Education and Advocacy Center.
As a Christian, Ohio University journalism major Hannah Britton (in photo at right) found it “surreal” to visit the Sea of Galilee and other holy sites. “To actually be at these places that I've heard about and being there is so different from reading and hearing about it.”
Many students left worried family and friends at home. “My parents really didn’t want me to come,” said Alex Zhang, a business and computer science major from the University of Southern California. “I’ve got a couple of friends back home who are making me text them every hour to make sure I’m still alive.”
Britton agreed. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, be careful, are you really going to go there during a war?’ I had to explain to them that it's not going on in Israel, to look at a map and see where the [Syrian] conflict is actually taking place.”
Despite visits to areas that were recently under fire, such asthe town of Sderot which sits a mile from the Gaza border, the mission stuck to its peaceful, if action-packed, agenda, cramming in as many authentic Israel experiences as possible.
Britton believes in seeing the world in order to “challenge preconceived notions many Americans have about these places.” She appreciated students being able to “form our own opinions of Israel as a developing nation, and just how much it's advanced in the small amount of time that it's actually been a country.”
Students’ majors included psychology, religious studies, nursing, business, Middle-Eastern studies, economics, and political science. The main criterion was not any particular field of study, rather, the student’s leadership qualities and ability to share what they learn.
“Everybody's coming from their own perspective,” said Fred Kindelsperger, a business major from the University of North Florida. “We have civil engineers, political science majors, and people from all walks of life. I'm a business major, so I'm looking forward to learning more about the entrepreneurial culture here. There's a lot we can learn from everything that's coming out of Israel. I feel like there's a significant lack of understanding in the U.S. as far as what Israel is today and what it represents.”
Zhang (in photo at left), too, was impressed by how much Israel has accomplished in its relatively short history. “The start-up and technology community and ecosystem that exists here has always fascinated me,” he said. With high-tech companies making waves from a small, isolated country “that is also facing so many things politically and economically,” he joked that “there must be something in the water” in Israel. But having toured the country a little, he now believes he knows the secret: “It must be the hummus!”
Joking aside, Zhang did manage to calm his parents’ and friends’ concerns for his safety. “You see a lot of the media, you read a lot in the press about what's going on, but being here, you immediately understand.” With two security guards staffing the trip full-time in addition to the guides and JNF leaders, he said, “I haven’t felt unsafe even once.”
Beyond painstaking safety precautions, Klein said that the evening “debriefing” sessions form a major part of the trip’s agenda. “We create a very safe space” where students can reflect on what they’ve experienced each day, he said. “They’re not attacked, they're not judged, and it’s in those sessions where the program is made.”
Overall, Kindelsperger called the trip an unbeatable chance for any student “who might find themselves in a position, within the next five to ten years, to lead a movement that might be inspired out of the things they learn here.”
Britton was simply grateful for the opportunity that Caravan for Democracy offered for her to come to Israel. While many Jewish students her age take an Israel trip for granted, since most are eligible for free Taglit-Birthright Israel tours, to students like her who aren’t from a Jewish background, “This is an opportunity that probably most of us would never have had.”
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