Micaela Procopio, a fifth-year senior at Michigan State University, says she wanted to see the situation in Israel for herself – and she has been impressed.
“I came here to form my own opinions about Israel instead of having the news or others form it for me,” says Procopio, one of 68 participants in two Jewish National Fund-USA’s Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission groups that began at the end of December, 2016. “Every day has been a powerful, breathtaking experience.”
Caravan for Democracy is a 10-day, all-expenses paid educational trip geared towards non-Jewish college and university student leaders who have never been to the country. The program, which has been running for six years, provides participants with the opportunity to explore Israel through a tour of the country with local guides and meetings with political, cultural and community leaders from all backgrounds and faiths.
After celebrating New Year’s Eve in downtown Jerusalem, for example, the groups spent January 1 visiting Yad Vashem, the City of David and the Security Barrier, as well as meeting Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, co-CEO of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and Israeli author Matti Friedman at a Jerusalem hotel.
“The trip really caught my eye because everything I've known about Israel has come through the avenues of news outlets and I had a really skewed view of what Israel was,” says Procopio. “I feel so blessed to have been able to travel Israel with JNF. I feel extremely more knowledgeable about Israel to take back what I've learned to the US.”
Procopio, who is due to graduate in May with a degree in History and two minors in Jewish Studies and Museum Studies, says her special interest in the Holocaust made the trip more meaningful for her.
“The history of Israel connects with the Holocaust,” she says. “My experience here will forever change how I study the Holocaust, how I view news outlets and how I grow as a person. It's been a ten-day trip, but it will be a lifetime experience.”
Yishai Goldflam, the Jewish National Fund’s executive director of Israel Advocacy and Education, notes that the program's fellows have performed a range of leadership roles at colleges and universities across the US.
“We offer them a comprehensive and balanced picture of Israel, while emphasizing elements that they would never hear about on the news, such as Project Wadi Attir in the Negev that empowers the Beduin community, or visiting LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible, an organization that offers hikes and outdoor activities to children and adults with special needs, both of which are JNF partners,” Goldflam says.
“It is clear to us that there is nothing more powerful than seeing Israel with your own eyes, and dealing with her challenges while on Israeli soil. The nuances and contexts they are receiving here will no doubt help them make sense of the pro- and especially anti-Israel discourse they hear on campus. Down the line, as they begin careers in the public and private sectors, our hope is that they will take their knowledge and understanding of Israel everywhere they go. We already have some alumni who work in the White House, the UN, and are running for positions in local government.”
Drake Rehfeld, 19, is a computer science and business student from the University of South California who grew up in Glendora, California and works in software engineering and startups.
“I've heard so much recently about Israel's startup ecosystem. It is interesting that a country that is involved in such tumultuous international situations is also so innovative and economically successful relative to its neighbors,” he says. “I joined JNF's Caravan for Democracy to learn more about this ecosystem and understand the way it both is influenced by and influences international strategy.”
Rehfeld plans to work in the future with hi-tech companies based in Tel Aviv. “It's very interesting how IDF service produces workers with incredibly desirable (yet hard to find) skills for these companies, such as experience in cyber-security and software as a service (Saas),” he says. “I'd like to explore the link between this training and the economic prosperity of the country.”
Tremayne Smith from Salisbury, North Carolina, describes himself as an African-American, evangelical Christian who is doing his masters in political management at George Washington University as well as serving as special assistant to Congressman G.K. Butterfield, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. While Smith says it is impossible to describe exactly how the trip has impacted him, he has had several “life-changing” experiences, including a visit to Capernaum.
“Here, supposedly the spot where Jesus read the Beatitudes, I too was able to read that passage of scripture to my Caravan delegation overlooking the Sea of Galilee,” he says. “It was an extremely powerful moment.”
He was particularly encouraged by a visit to an Arab-Israeli multicultural center in Haifa. “This center emphasizes and celebrates the diversity of the people in this country,” he says. “Complementary to that was a visit to LOTEM, where we learned about some amazing outdoor programs geared towards Israelis with disabilities.”
Smith concludes that he will return home to the US with a greater understanding of Israel. “Because of this Caravan for Democracy and the invaluable experiences I have been fortunate to have, my voice on Israel has been buttressed, and I will without hesitation see to it that others understand as well,” Smith says. “I understand JNF’s motto is ‘Your Voice in Israel.’ Well, I’ll take it a step further. I will now be that voice in America.”
The Caravan for Democracy Student Mission, which is organized in cooperation with Media Watch International and Shorashim, is sponsored by the Milton and Beatrice Shapiro JNF Scholarship Fund, the Sam and Joan Ginsburg Charitable Fund, the David and Linda Stein Family, and the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation with additional support from JNF Boruchin Israel Education & Advocacy Center, which this year allowed over 30 more students to participate.
Participants are selected through a competitive application and interview process, and are required to take part in a post-trip follow -up on their campuses regarding their experiences in Israel.This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.
Additional sponsors are The Simon and Ethel Flegg Memorial Scholarship Fund and The David and Ruth Simon Family.