SU STUDENTS GAIN NEW SENSE OF JEWISH IDENTITY THROUGH ISRAEL EXPERIENCE
Brian Cohen ’00 stood on the roof of an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Old City. To his left, church bells rang; from a nearby mosque he heard the Muslim call to prayer. Looking down, he saw Jews praying at the Western Wall. “I was at the center of thrae religions,” recalls Cohen, now an assistant account executive at Modem Media in Connecticut.
Visiting the Old City, which is of historical significance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, was Cohen’s most meaningful experience during a 10-day trip to Israel. Then an advertising major in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Cohen as among 60 Syracuse University students who traveled to Israel last winter as part of an inaugural trip sponsored by Birthright Israel, a Jewish philanthropic organization that is dedicated to creating a long-term, significant relationship between Jenish students and Israel. An estimated 6,000 students nationwide have visited Israel through the program.
Sivan Kaminsky, executive director of Hillel at Syracuse University, says Jewish students apply online for the free program. To be eligible, they must be between the ages of 18 and 26, must be enrolled full time at a university, and must be making their first peer trip to Israel. The program is funded by individual donors, the Israeli government, and United Jewish Communities, a group of Jewish federations that raises money locally and allocates it to organizations and agencies for programming. “Birthright Israel is a gift from the Jewish community to Jewish students,” Kaminsky says. SU is ideal for the program, he says, because of its significant Jewish population and the Hillel community, which recruits students for the trips.
Cara Karp ’00, one of five SU students who visited Israel this past summer through the program, remembers beginning her tour, jet-lagged, with a three-hour hike up a mountain. “During our 10 days there, we rappelled down a mountain, climbed up and down Masada [an ancient fortress], swam in the Dead Sea, and really bonded as a group,” says Karp, a graduate of the Newhouse School’s television-radio-film program with a dual major in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. “We hiked every day and were pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally.”
The tour takes students to many of the country’s historic sites and cities, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Haifa, Masada, and the Dead Sea. Karp and her group had an emotional visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and the grave of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Throughout their travels, the students had numerous discussions and debates with Israeli peers about topics ranging from religion to current events. Having Israeli students with them on the trip, Karp says, gave her a strong sense of life there. “The stories they told and the opinions they had were far more educational and interesting than anything a tour guide or book could offer,” she says.
courtesy of su hillel|
SU students Mara Golden and Steve Schnall dig at a cave excavation at Tel Maresha National Park.
Kaminsky says SU Hillel staff accompany the students to determine their interests and help them build a Judaic network. The trip allows students to meet and share experiences, and Hillel continues this connection back on campus. “We emphasize the importance of the activities before and after the trip,” says Kaminsky.
Before leaving, students participate in an orientation and may take a crash course in Hebrew. Once students return to SU, Hillel encourages activities that allow them to share newfound interests and experiences, hosting such events as reunions, dinners, and photo-exchange nights. The students also return from Israel with a new sense of Jewish identity. For some students, Kaminsky says, the trip inspires involvement in the religious activities of the Jewish campus community; others immerse themselves in the history and culture of Judaism and Israel. “It provides a lifetime connection to a community,” Kaminsky says.
Karp is thankful for the opportunity. She says the trip helped her grow as a person, and she now feels more connected to her religion and to Israel. “This is a chance to find your limits, learn endless lessons and information, and make lifetime friends,” Karp says.