“Absolutely life changing.”
“The most extraordinary experience of my life.”
“Will inform how I consider literally every conflict going forward.”
These are just a few pieces of student feedback from UArizona Hillel’s first Perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, funded by the national Maccabee Task Force.
The trip is a wildly unique experience, designed for mostly non-Jewish students—although we took four Jewish students in addition to 16 non-Jewish students—that aims to give a panoply of regional perspectives. It’s an intensive deep-dive, and trip participants must be active campus student leaders in order to participate in the fully subsidized experience.
Each day, we would travel the country meeting with experts including former members of the Knesset, members of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Jewish settlers, Arab Israelis, journalists, artists, activists, Jewish olim from all over the world, and business owners. The students were remarkable: over the course of 10 days that were each often 15 hours long, they took notes, asked questions, cried, laughed, walked hand-in-hand with our hosts, and approached everything they heard with thoughtfulness and an open mind. (Of course, they also had fun at the Dead Sea, celebrating two nights of Purim in Israel, visiting shuks (food markets), sightseeing, taking a Jeep tour, and clubbing in Tel Aviv.)
One purpose of the trip is to create a community of educated student leaders on campus that has a nuanced and deep view of the conflict. Now, when issues around Israel and Palestine arise on campus, there will be a cohort of mature students—each with their own sphere of influence—who can engage from the place of their own personal experience and help ratchet down myopic rhetoric and bring genuine discussion to the community. The cohort experience begins before the trip, and we recently celebrated with a post-trip reunion dinner. Meaningful friendships were formed, and the trip participants openly spend time together back in Tucson.
For Hillel, the value of the trip goes far beyond the travel itself. Through recruiting for the trip, we get to meet and explore campus cultural centers, Greek life, faith-based institutions, student government, and clubs, forming important allyships and relationships that help us work towards the engaged and diverse Jewish community we hope to build on this campus.
It was extremely meaningful to facilitate a Muslim student’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and to watch a dozen Christian students be able to experience the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We had a collectively profound experience at Yad Vashem, and were able to see democracy in action as our bus was slowed by the massive political protests in in Israel.
But above all, the people made the difference. We spent an afternoon on a kibbutz in the Gaza Envelope, where rockets and burning balloons frequently fall on residents. We explored the bomb-proof preschool and a nearby playground that doubles as a bomb shelter. Our students sat on our host’s porch drinking sparkling water and watching her present pieces of shrapnel that had fallen in her backyard. This was only days after we’d been to the security wall in Bethlehem and spent a challenging day in Ramallah. One of the students sat down on the porch, holding in one hand a piece of a rocket, and in the other the hand of the Israeli woman who was hosting us, tears welling in the student’s eyes. The next day, that student—who had been quiet on the trip—asked a number of brilliant questions in one of our meetings. It was a snapshot of the deep power of the trip; mission-in-action.
In our closing processing session, I asked the students to go through their phones and send to the group chat one photo from the trip that represented joy, and one photo that represented something profound. As the group chat lit up with their submissions, I looked around the room and saw people smiling, crying, burying their heads in their hands, reaching over to hug someone, and laughing uproariously. Like the residents of the region, they were experiencing so many emotions at the same time. And that is exactly what makes their voices on the conflict important back here in America: the ability to hold it all at once.