Twenty-five University of Maryland students are back from a transformative 10-day Israel experience. No, this was not a Birthright Israel trip. Rather, Maryland Hillel facilitated a unique experience for students of diverse faiths, backgrounds, and political views, all College Park campus leaders.
“We live in an age of bifurcation and insularity," said Maryland Hilllel Executive Director Rabbi Ari Israel. Dialogue, robust communication, and shared experiences are critical in building bridges of understanding. This trip was all about creating shared narrative and really listening to each other.”
Too often, public perceptions of Israel are shaped by 90-second sound bites. This trip was designed to give student leaders the opportunity to develop a more robust understanding of the complexities of Israel and the Middle East.
Students visited holy sites of the various faith communities, and met with academics, politicians, and leaders from all walks of Israeli life. The students also had the opportunity to meet with an alumnus of the University of Maryland who is now a pivotal figure in the Israeli high-tech scene.
But a real understanding was cultivated in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians.
Shira Gabay, the Jewish Israel Agency Fellow (shlicha) at Maryland Hillel, remarked, “Israel is sadly portrayed as a source of division on many campuses across the United States and globally. It was so powerful to see my native country and region as a unifying force for these diverse students.”
"In working to understand the conflict, it is also important to understand the greater context that exists in this country and in this region of the world," said Rabbi Aderet Drucker. Rabbi Drucker serves as campus rabbi and director of Jewish Life and Learning at Maryland Hillel, and was a co-leader of the trip.
This Israel Discovered Trip is a larger iteration of last winter’s The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore program for area Hillels to facilitate a combined trip for campus leaders. The experience was so successful and impactful that Maryland Hillel elected to pursue grant funding to expand the program.
The students are vetted through a highly selective process in order to ensure diversity and strength of leadership and commitment. The participants already play transformative roles on campus and will continue to serve as leaders and influencers as they transition out of college.
“The conflict is uncomfortable and we needed to experience that," said student participant Dylan Hunt. "Although I doubted it at times, hope for the future is a common denominator for both Israelis and Palestinians. At the end of the day, that gives me hope for their future."
Notwithstanding the challenges of the recent effort to pass a divestment bill at the student government association level, the University of Maryland remains a place of tolerance, active citizenship, and cooperation. Initiatives like Israel Discovered are critical for College Park to remain a destination for students of diverse backgrounds, ready to express their individual identities as proud Terps.
The Israel Discover Trip was not the only Terp group in Israel. Eighty students also participated in Birthright Israel through Maryland Hillel, which remains the leading campus recruiter for the trip each year.
Maryland Hillel works to expose students to the richness of Israel, its culture, and its people, so they create their own relationship with the country and deepen their personal identities. Additionally, the campus employs two professionals dedicated to Israel engagement and Birthright on campus.
By Elan Berman