On any given day, hundreds of tour buses filled with sightseers crisscross Israel’s highways and byways, visiting significant historical, cultural, and religious sites. Visitors to the Holy Land – both Jewish and non-Jewish – come not only in search of fun and adventure, but to learn about the ancient history of the Holy Land as well keep abreast with current developments in the Start-up Nation.
Young people too are coming by the planeloads to see Israel while on break, Birthright, or to study abroad.
Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) is at the forefront of this effort, having brought 4,000 young adults and students to Israel in 2018, spanning a wide variety of open and thought-provoking educational programs for young adults. They would have brought more but the trips were sold out.
Noting the growing need, Robert B. Levine, JNF’s vice president of education, said: “In 2018, all of our programs experienced growth. Demand for JNF-USA educational and volunteer opportunities are up, and we’re excited to continue to expand in 2019.”
JNF’s educational opportunities in Israel begin with high school study abroad programs at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF).The campus is located in Hod Hasharon, just outside of Tel Aviv, but the school is known for its signature experiential Israel Studies Curriculum, which spans more than 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history, and allows students to learn at the very sites where the events took place.
AMHSI-JNF offers six-week, eight-week, and 18-week options for high school students and they come from the United States, Canada, Australia and other global Jewish communities. Ron Werner, AMHSI-JNF’s president and an alumn of the school, relates that “many of our alumni say that the experience at AMHSI-JNF transformed their lives and made them into lovers of Israel – from not knowing anything about Israel to having an affinity and wanting to come back.”
That’s where JNF’s programs for college and post-college students come into the picture. JNF’s Birthright program, operated by Shorashim, is a fully immersive cultural experience. Unlike most other Birthright groups, Israeli contemporaries participate in all 10 days of the trip, providing participants with opportunities to ask questions and experience Israeli life alongside their peers. In addition to touring historical sites, hiking throughout the country, and experiencing a memorable Shabbat, JNF Birthright trips visit important JNF sites such as the Indoor Recreation Center in Sderot, a 21,000-square-foot secure indoor playground and community center which provides rest and respite for parents and children who live near the Gaza border. Excursions such as these, along with other JNF sites, provide a balanced and in-depth view of Israel.
For college students who want a hands-on experience, JNF offers Alternative Winter Break, a one-week trip designed for those who have previously visited Israel, giving them the opportunity to perform community service. Participants on Alternative Winter Break, explains Levine, “love Israel and want to see it from a different perspective.”
The program brings hundreds of college students to Israel’s southern region, where they work in fields, doing maintenance work, planting trees, building gazebos and traffic roundabouts. And for young adults out of school, JNF’s Volunteer Vacation trip is a similar program available to ages 25 through 35. “What we’re trying to do,” says Levine, “is to show them Israel through the lens of JNF.”
But JNF’s educational vision doesn’t end with youth. It extends beyond the student experience to college faculty members. Faculty Fellowship trips link scholars from diverse disciplines with their Israeli counterparts at major institutions for the purpose of initiating exchanges and collaborations. As with all JNF programs, participants are encouraged to investigate, ask, and inquire. René Reinhard, JNF chief of staff, explains, “We encourage participants to interact with everyone around them and to pose questions and seek people’s opinions. We introduce them to sides of Israel that many people do not know. By showing them our work, they can then share their experiences when they get back.” This year’s program included participants from educational institutions in Florida, Arizona, California, New York and other locations. Dr. Bradley Greger, professor of Bio-Engineering at Arizona State University, said, “It has been beneficial for me to come here, and see with my own eyes, what Israel is like. There are so many great engineers and researchers here that I have met that I hope to continue these ongoing relationships. One of the most interesting things about this program is that it is very unfiltered and diverse, and not agenda driven. It’s a positive, growth-oriented mission.”
Dr. Calvin Stewart, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, added, “This was a huge draw for me to have the opportunity to go to Israel and meet with academic contemporaries who I admire, and collaborate, not just through a Skype chat or e-mail, but to sit down and have a conversation with them, and see how we can collaborate.”
And finally, one of JNF’s most ambitious and admirable programs, Caravan for Democracy, is designed for non-Jewish college student leaders, and is designed to provide them with an accurate, unbiased picture of life in Israel. The program brings a diverse group from campuses across the United States to discover Israel, approaching it as a blank canvas. “Leaders on campus have influence,” says Levine. “We’re not trying to spoon-feed them any particular narrative, but allowing them to hear from politicians, journalists, citizens, students, visit historical sites, tour throughout the whole country, learn geography and topography, and experience for themselves the reality of life in Israel.”
A recent 10-day trip brought 80 college student leaders from across the United States. The group visited Christian religious sites, toured the Golan Heights, and met with Jewish Israelis, Palestinians, Bedouins, and Druze. At Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, students learned about the aid that Israel supplies to Syrian civilians who have been wounded in the country’s civil war.
They visited the SodaStream plant near Beersheba, where Palestinians, Bedouins and Jews work together in a spirit of cooperation and friendship. Domonic Haire, 20, from Washington DC, who attends St. John’s University in New York, said, “Seeing SodaStream gave me a glimpse of what Israel could be, or at least what the land and the region could be. I thought it was a very beautiful thing to see.”
Xavier Sayeed, 20, from Indianapolis and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, said, “We went to the Temple Mount, and as a Muslim, I was allowed to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to feel the energy there. Afterwards, we visited the Western Wall, and I felt the same energy in both places. I felt that was a really beautiful experience for me to see people with the light and love of God in their hearts, who are so enveloped in worship.”
The entire trip provided the participants with different points of view, and an appreciation for these differences. Added Sayeed, “There are so many different people that call this place home, and it has been incredible to hear their stories and to know that what is happening here is very nuanced and very complex.”
JNF’s educational tours are doing their part to support the message of “Positively Israel,” planting seeds of understanding, learning and knowledge for a wide range of diverse groups and interests. And making trips to Israel enjoyable, entertaining, and edifying for thousands of participants every year.
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.