Interfaith Students Explore Israel

Debbie Pine has led numerous Birthright trips to Israel but in some ways her most recent student-led trip was the most powerful.

For 10 days, Jewish and non-Jewish students from three local universities toured the country, developing new perspectives that often undermined biases, while garnering stronger interfaith connections.

Funded in part by The Associated’s Israel and Engagement Center, the Hillel study trip, Israel Discovered, was organized as a way to engage student leaders from area college campus providing them with an understanding of Israel’s complexities so they can advocate Israel on campus. The trip was led by Pine, as well as Maiya Chard-Yaron and Ari Israel from Maryland Hillel, with planning help from Noam Ben Tov of Towson Hillel.

The experience began in Jerusalem, where the group visited many religious sites, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter. They spent Shabbat in the Old City of Jerusalem, then traveled to the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights and Tel Aviv.

The students heard from a diverse group of speakers and leaders including the Times of Israel’s Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff, a representative from the United States Embassy and a representative from the Palestinian Authority.

For Daphna Varadi, who was born in Israel but raised in the United States, the trip offered a new perspective on Israel. Although she had visited the land a number of times, and even studied there, this trip, she said, showcased places she had never seen before. In particular, she was impressed with the visit to the Christian quarter, meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and learning about the Christian connection to the land and how it differs from the Jewish narrative she was taught.

“I was able to see first-hand how important Israel was to other religions. I never realized that many of my Christian friends also held such deep connections to the country. Understanding this significance added to the complexity of the place and I know will help me advocate for the country to students on campus.”

University of Maryland, College Park student Adrian Johnston always wanted to travel to Israel. Before the trip, the engineering major, who is Christian, was looking forward to seeing the sites holy to his religion.

Yet, he admits, the trip went beyond the normal tourist experience.

“We would come back each night and would stand in the lobby and just debrief about what we saw. “We’d talk about religion … we’d talk about the issues. We learned about each other and saw things from different perspectives,” he says.

“I was surprised at the complexity of the issues. The situation is not as black and white as I thought.”

Many times, the students were asked questions from those of other faiths, that forced them to think more deeply about their religion. Said Pine, “I think it really reinforced the Jewish students’ connection to Judaism, as they were often were encouraged to think about the ‘why’s.’”

At the same time, although some of the non-Jewish students came on the trip with some biases, due to their previous exposure to organizations and the media, after 10 days, explained Pine, their opinions changed.

The positive impact of the trip didn’t stop when the students returned to their college campuses. Today, they continue to keep in touch – and they are working together on campus to foster a deeper understanding of Israel for more of their peers.

At Hopkins, students are getting together to continue the discussion, and have asked Pine for suggested readings and discussion materials. Recently, Johnston, who chairs the Advisory Board of the Student Union at College Park, met with other Maryland students who participated in the Israel Discovered trip. 

“I left Israel knowing we need to increase dialogue,” Johnston says. We want to start a group that encourages dialogue on this issue and bring in a variety of speakers.”

Adds Varadi, “Pulling on my experiences and my relationships now will make it easier for me to advocate for Israel on campus.”

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