Catherine Zhang, a junior at Harvard University, doesn’t have a religious bone in her body. When she visited the Western Wall for the first time, the curious student was looking forward to seeing this holy site with her own eyes and appreciating the awe-inspiring place on an intellectual level.
So when she slipped a prayer note in between the Wall’s cracks and began to cry, it was a reaction that caught her off guard.
“I wasn’t raised religious. So when I visited the Kotel for the first time, I was caught by surprise,” she told The Jerusalem Post the day after her visit. “I started crying, and I didn’t expect that. We’ve heard from so many different people [during the trip] and it all culminated in so many different emotions for me.”
In what can best be described as a glorious mess of emotions and thoughts, Zhang’s experience at the Wall can perhaps be a met- aphor for a newcomer visiting Israel for the first time. After all, how can one not burst into an impromptu crying fest after one’s first encounter with the sights, smells and voices that comprise a country steeped in historical, religious and geo-political significance?
Zhang arrived as part of the Jewish National Fund’s Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission, a 10-day fully subsidized trip that takes campus leaders from across the United States and gives them a crash course on Israel, where they spoke to decisionmakers, community leaders and experts across a variety of backgrounds.
“The goal is that these student leaders go back to campus and create conversations based on informed discussions, and not misinformation,” Anne Greenspoon, JNF’s director of Community Engagement, explained.
Zhang, who serves as Harvard’s student body president, is one of the 80 student leaders across US campuses who participated in the mission. JNF is proud of assem- bling a diverse group of students who attended the trip, with 30 hailing from an ethnic or religious minority – the most diverse lineup of students in the program’s seven-year history.
However, the common denominator that connected them all is that they are all non-Jewish and are visiting Israel for the very first time. “We are looking for influencers on campus who are able to make a difference. We know that when these students return to their community, their voices will be heard,” JNF’s Yishai Goldflam, executive director, Israel Advocacy and Education, added.
While the trip isn’t looking to turn these students into pro-Israel advocates per se, the ultimate goal is that by being informed about the country and its challenges they can talk about the many nuances affecting Israel and educate their peers accordingly.
To follow up, Goldflam adds that JNF keeps in touch with alumni who are each obligated to host an event that addresses what they learned about their trip when they return home. In tandem with Caravan, JNF also hosted a Faculty Fellowship delegation which brings campus professors to Israel so they can learn from their Israeli counterparts from a variety of universities.
Like Caravan, Faculty Fellowship is co-organized by Media Watch International. Here, too, the goal is to provide educators with the opportunity to see Israel beyond the headlines, but also to let them become acquainted with the progress Israel has made in a spectrum of disciplines and hear from the experts who made it possible. Consider it educational networking on steroids.
Caravan is just one example of JNF’s aim to change the conversation about Israel among the next generation. In addition to that program, JNF brought an extra 1,000 participants to Israel through Birthright trips; Alternative Winter Break where students volunteer in Southern Israel and JNFuture Volunteer Vacation where young professionals spend a week making a difference for the people of Israel.
“I cannot wait to describe the complexities of Israel,” Dr. Carla Berg, an associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said. “I actually came more to remedy my ignorance about Israel. And it certainly did,” she added.
Dr. Sanjaya, an assistant professor of bio- energy and environmental biotechnology at West Virginia State University, was struck by Israel’s humanitarian assistance regarding replenishing Gaza’s water and electricity supply. “I’ve been impressed by its humanitarian aid – especially when it comes to Gaza. We visited the ‘Gaza Envelope’ [the area bordering the Strip] and saw how it treats Gazan wastewater and provides them with drinking water. If Israel chose not to do that, Gaza’s humanitarian crisis would become even more severe. This has changed my per- spective,” he said. “I’m going to speak about Israel when I get home, and be very vocal about it. This is something everyone and the international media should know about.”
His takeaway from the trip personifies exactly what JNF is trying to achieve – provide tools for academics and students to better understand Israel so they can under- stand the complexities that surround the Jewish state. But, for many participants in both pro- grams, Israel came to represent so much more than the conflict that dominates the headlines.
For Marcos Arroyo, a senior at West Point, visiting a modern society on the forefront of creating cutting-edge technology that has historical relics from an ancient civilization as its background, was what resonated with him the most.
“The conclusion of the trip proved to me how much more Israel is than the conflict. It is an insane clash of a millennia-old history with a modern state on the tip of the world’s fight in progressive, social and technological advancements. I had no clue of the heart of a powerful country that lies below the ashes of a current conflict constantly skewed by the news sources that report it,” he said.
As such, students and faculty were captivated when they had the chance to hear personal stories from Israelis themselves. Whether it be a discussion from an employee in the Tel Aviv Municipality’s LGBT center, Olympian bronze medalist judoka Arik Ze’evi talking about his victories and losses or even interacting with regular folk, hearing from all walks of life revealed the magic of the country.
“We met two people in a bar,” Zhang recalled after a long day of meetings. “We spoke to one person who lived in a settlement, and another Jew from the United Kingdom, who each gave us their authentic, no-holds-barred, opinions. It was refreshing to see people not be reduced to a tagline or slogan.”
“This was a chance to understand a foreign culture and people and for me to get out of my bubble,” Zhang added.
Caravan for Democracy is sponsored by the Milton and Beatrice Shapiro JNF Scholarship Fund, the Sam and Joan Ginsburg Charitable Fund, the David and Linda Stein Family, Geri Shatz and Bernice Freedman, with additional support from JNF’s Boruchin Israel Education & Advocacy Center.This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.