Delving into the ‘different, but familiar’

Now celebrating its 10th year, Jewish National Fund’s Faculty Fellowship program provides American educators with an authentic Israel experience

From left to right: Profs. Amalia Leicester, Norma Alcantar and Tyrell Carr pose in Jerusalem’s Old City as part of their Faculty Fellowship trip in Israel (photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
From left to right: Profs. Amalia Leicester, Norma Alcantar and Tyrell Carr pose in Jerusalem’s Old City as part of their Faculty Fellowship trip in Israel
(photo credit: ERIC NARROW)
It’s easy to be inundated with images from Israel if one follows the news. However, Israel is one of those places where seeing pictures of its sights or reading about them in a book does not do the country justice.
Norma Alcantar, a professor of chemical engineering at The University of South Florida, marveled at what she witnessed during her first trip to Israel. “Now that I’m here, it’s such an amazing place. Everything that I have envisioned is totally different. It looks like places that I have seen, but it looks so different in person,” she said.
As an example, Alcantar points to the group’s first day when they visited the Golan Heights and were a mere 60 kilometers (less than 40 miles) from the carnage in Damascus.
“To me, it was one of the most peaceful places I’ve been to and, yet, it is right next to a place of constant conflict. Seeing that contrast of the tanks and memorial sites where people died in the 1967 war, it’s so interesting to me how it is still a peaceful place,” she said, shocked that a location adjacent to such a calamity can maintain peace.
Prof. Tyrell Carr, an assistant professor at Saint Augustine’s University, was also moved by his Golan experience but had a different take on one of Israel’s most strategic locations.
“Being close to the Syrian border, a colleague of mine and I heard gunshots. That showed me how real the conflict is in Syria and how easily it can spread into Israel. I wasn’t afraid, but at the same time, it helps me appreciate what the people of Israel go through. This is their life – you never know what may happen,” he said.
As such, with Jewish National Fund’s Faculty Fellowship program, which is celebrating its 10th year, university educators receive a comprehensive “positively Israel” experience firsthand. During their trip, they are exposed to a side of Israel rarely seen in the media. Rather than strictly conflict, they see life through the eyes of all walks of life here and encounter a nation that is a leader of innovation, academic and scientific breakthroughs. 
Jewish National Fund hopes that, as a result, Faculty Fellowship participants will go back to their campuses and help change the conversation about Israel to one that actually reflects what is happening in the country.
“We are creating academic partnerships in Israel among leading universities in the US and their counterparts here in Israel. With programs like the Faculty Fellowship we are also educating them and showing them a new side of Israel. The hope is that they will then help remedy the worrisome situation on campus where misinformation against Israel is often disseminated,” said Faculty program director and JNF Chief of Staff René Reinhard.
Carr is an example of a professor who will do just that upon his return. 
“I would encourage my students to take advantage of international education in Israel for research purposes. I will also tell them if you come here to learn, you will be safe,” he said.
The Faculty Fellowship, is one integral part of JNF’s Israel Continuum, which provides constant points of engagement from elementary school, to high school to Birthright to young professionals and beyond. 
The program is a recipient of the JNF Boruchin Advocacy Center, a $100 million fund that focuses on Israel and Zionist educational programs. The center is dedicated to Israel advocacy and supports numerous partners including: Jerusalem U, Heroes to Heroes, Israel Campus Coalition, Alexander Muss High School in Israel and Caravan for Democracy.
Ira Bartfield, from Arlington, Virginia, who accompanied the group remarked, “For me it’s very illuminating to see Israel and JNF-USA’s commitment to communities throughout Israel through the eyes of first-time visitors with little or no prior knowledge of Israel. It’s especially gratifying as the academics return to their campuses and communities to share their first-hand experience,” he said.
Faculty Fellowship participants, the majority of whom are not Jewish, saw how Israel not only survives, but thrives despite its challenges. They witnessed how, for example, in places like Tel Hai Academic College or even Bouza’s ice cream shop, Jews and Arabs are able to work together in harmony despite the very real threats surrounding them.
Prof. Amalia Leicester from Clemson University reveled in meeting local academics during her trip. 
“There’s great opportunities for collaboration here where students can embark on internships and work on special projects,” she said.
Similarly, Dr. Volker Benkert, professor at the school for Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, had the chance to meet with a contributor for a project he’s working on.
“I’m currently editing a volume on German generations, and I actually had the opportunity to meet one of the contributing authors while here in Israel,” he explained. “While we don’t have a lot of anti-Israel sentiment at Arizona State University, Israel’s ability to handle criticism and openly engage in programs to educate professors on how to handle criticism is what separates Israel from other countries in the world.”
Alcantar also found great value in peer-to-peer meetings here, saying, “JNF has arranged meetings with our counterparts here – I visited the Technion and an engineering college in Jerusalem – and it has been so interesting; we’re already thinking of joint proposals together. We’ve only had brief meetings with local educators here, but it’s been so valuable,” she said.
However, despite the rich academic opportunities Israel can provide, it is still a place of solace and spirituality for many and its impact on a person’s soul is a powerful one.
“I wanted to come to Jerusalem, because I’m a Christian and this is my holy place. I’ve wanted to come here since I was a child,” Carr revealed.
As such, at the Faculty Fellowship programs participants are able to satisfy the curiosity of their inner child and the adult and professional they have become today.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.