Standing with 33 other college students in the ancient synagogue of Masada while a sofer (scribe) discussed the art of writing a Torah, Danielle Schlesinger and Lindsay MacGillivray were inspired by what the man did next.
The scribe took a representative of each religion in the group — one Jew, one Christian, one Muslim — and wrote a letter in the Torah scroll for them. Then he blessed the young people.
“You could tell people were crying; it was a very emotional thing, very special,” Schlesinger recalled. “It tied us all together.”
That Masada moment was one of many memorable experiences for these students.
They also met Israeli soldiers, teenagers, Arab-Israelis, Technion students and Ethiopians. They held long philosophical talks on their bus and they bonded as friends — Jew and non-Jew alike.
“It was a fantastic trip and a fantastic opportunity,” MacGillivray said.
The two Carnegie Mellon University students just returned from a 10-day trip to Israel, which was sponsored by The David Project, called “Israel Uncovered.” From Jan. 1 to 11, 35 student campus leaders from 12 American colleges and universities toured the Jewish state together, learning from each other about the Jewish connection to the land, how diverse the country is and its significance in today’s world.
What made this trip significant was that each school represented paired one Jewish student with one or more non-Jewish students, the intent being that all the students would become advocates for Israel, or at least encourage constructive dialogue, when they returned to their home campuses.
In CMU’s case Schlesinger, a Jewish sophomore from Pittsburgh’s South Hills and a co-founder of Tartans4Israel, tapped her friend MacGillivray, a Christian junior from Fryeburg, Maine, and a member of the student senate, to join her on the trip.
“I knew her really well and knew she was someone who would be good at taking initiatives coming back, talking to other campus leaders,” said Schlesinger, who has made several trips to Israel.
MacGillivray, by comparison, admitted she held preconceived notions about the country she had never seen before.
“It was difficult for me to understand, before I went to Israel, the draw of living there,” she said. “It seemed a little bit like, if there’s so much turmoil in a place, why would you want to live there?
“But after traveling there, I realized there is something so special about the country,” she continued. “I think that comes out of everyone observing the same sort of culture and living shared experiences, and that really pulls the country together in a unique and special way.”
The David Project is a Boston-based Israel advocacy organization, striving to change campus discourse on the Jewish state in a positive way.
The organization tries to build relationships with student leaders and organizations, said Jason Horowitz, its Midwest campus coordinator. It trains students to be campus advocates for Israel “by talking about their own personal experiences with Israel, and what Israel means to them, instead of referring back to talking points that are hollow and insufficient.
“We’ve noticed students are much more likely to have a good relationship with others on campus if they talk more about why Israel is important to them over why Israel is right,” said Horowitz, a University of Pittsburgh alumnus, whose region covers Pittsburgh area universities.
The David Project works with Jewish student groups such as Tartans4Israel, but it had never before attempted a trip like Israel Uncovered.
“These are some of the best leaders on their campuses,” Horowitz said of its participants, only one-third of whom were Jewish. “To see them understand Israel for the complex country that it is was something I’ll never forget.”
He expects the program to be repeated next winter. “We’re hoping to expand next winter, so we’ll see what happens.”
Back at CMU, Schlesinger and MacGillivray are already thinking about how they will use their experiences to engage the Israel discussion on a campus they describe as politically “calm.”
Schlesinger said they have created a short presentation, meeting with campus administrators and student leaders about their experiences and how they can present them.
“Everyone has a story, and no one’s story is wrong,” Schlesinger said.
As a Tartans4Israel leader, she has had preliminary meetings with the Muslim Student Association, discussing ways the two groups can come together on a cultural level at first.
MacGillivray, who is pondering a run for higher office in the CMU student government, said she could use her next position to facilitate dialogue between Jewish and Muslims students, and the rest of the student body.
“I think I’m a lot more prepared to express my own opinions on the conflicts there. Having traveled there, I think I can help further explain things that may come out of the media, may not necessarily be true, and come across in a biased way.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)