Local college students enjoy in-depth view of Israel to ‘hear all sides’
Israel advocacy on campusCollege students bring knowledge from Israel trip to campus

Local college students enjoy in-depth view of Israel to ‘hear all sides’

The students heard from individuals representing various walks of political and religious life and are now tasked with creating a campus activity for Israel advocacy and awareness.

Participants pose for a photo during a graffiti tour in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv. (Photo courtesy of Brian Burke)
Participants pose for a photo during a graffiti tour in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv. (Photo courtesy of Brian Burke)

If experience is the best education, then 11 local college students got the lesson of a lifetime, spending an intensive week in the Jewish state as part of the Israel Ambassadors Program.

Students from Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh recently returned from their alternative spring break journey, which according to Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was about showing students “all of the perspectives of Israel.”

Sayles arranged for the young travelers to learn from individuals representing varying walks of political and religious life.

“We heard from a lot of really interesting speakers,” said Brian Burke, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh.

Presenters included “right-wing and leftwing” Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians, said Sayles. “The goal is really to get them to hear all sides of the argument, and to do so in an educational way, which will really strengthen their connection to the land of Israel.”

Mollie Serbin and Arianna Heilbrunn pose in front of street art in Tel Aviv (Photo courtesy of Mollie Serbin)
One enlightening moment actually arrived when a portion of the trip fell through, said Burke.

“We were supposed to go to Ramallah [one] day, but because of security concerns we weren’t able to go,” he explained. Instead of scrapping the experience completely, the Palestinian guide who was supposed to lead the tour ended up meeting the group in Jerusalem.

“We also heard from a Palestinian pollster,” added Burke, a political science major. “He’s a Ph.D., and he dived into the political views today, whether it’s support for the PLO, Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas or the future peace process. It was a really unique perspective to hear.

“You don’t often get into the nitty gritty details of what people think and you don’t often hear what people on the ground think.”

Sayles said it doesn’t matter whether or not the trip alters students’ perspectives on political causes.

“We don’t care if they end up leaning to left, right or center, as long as they support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state and take what they learned from the trip and bring it back to campus and make it a more Israel-friendly environment,” said Sayles.

Students prepare lunch after working the land with Hashomer Hachadash, a Moshav in Lakish . (Photo courtesy of Laura Cherner)
This was the third iteration of the Israel Ambassadors Program. Previous trips occurred in August 2015 and December 2016.

Upon their return, participants are expected to implement a campus oriented activity.

“All of these students agreed to have a yearlong commitment and put together their own projects, and collaborate not only with each other but with other Jewish and non-Jewish groups on campus to make it a safer place to love Israel,” said Sayles.

Burke said that although he has yet to flesh out the details, he is planning on doing “something connected with politics or views of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”

Another student was considering creating a podcast, while yet another participant was “talking about telling the story of Israel through art and photography,” said Sayles. “We will sit down with the students over the next couple of months and make sure that the projects are the best they can be.”

Program participants pose at Gan Meir, the LGBTQ+ community center in Tel Aviv. (Photo by Josh Sayles)
“The knowledge and enthusiasm that these students are bringing back to campus will make a significant impact on how Israel is understood and perceived on campus,” echoed Dan Marcus, executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center in Pittsburgh. “We are tremendously grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the generous donors that have made it possible for Hillel JUC students to participate in this highly sophisticated Israel program.”

This was Burke’s fourth time traveling to Israel. But in contrast to those prior visits, what the program provided was an opportunity to “go into more depth,” as well as “dive deeper into the issues,” he said.

Brenna Rosen, a fellow participant and junior at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed.

“Last year I went on Birthright — in December 2016, it was very touristy,” said the applied developmental psychology major. But, “I am interested in conflict politics and human rights.” What the trip afforded was the ability to “take a closer look at those things and see a side of Israel that you don’t see in Birthright. It was more investigative and more learning.”

“Some people like walking around, and hiking is all well and good, but being able to hear from journalists or politicians or people who work at NGOs was really cool,” said Burke.

In addition to fresh perspectives, organizers wanted to offer the students little-seen parts of the country. So whether it was showcasing advances in farming, the country’s handling of LGBT rights or developments in business and technology, said Sayles, “in a week we gave them a microcosm of all of the wonderful things that Israel has to offer.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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