Oregon Hillel students connect with Birthright

This winter, students from Oregon Hillel and Hillel Santa Cruz questioned their relationship to Israel, Judaism and each other while participating in a free 10-day trip to Israel. According to Birthright’s webpage, the trip was established to “motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel and maintain long-lasting connections with the 
Israelis they meet.” 
As the students landed at Ben Gurion Airport, they were greeted by their Israeli peers and their tour guide, Barak Berkovich. Berkovich made his goals for the trip clear: “One of my biggest goals is to create a community that at the end, those relationships, those bonds, which were created on the bus will continue on thriving.” 
Eight Israeli peers joined the group for the first five days of the trip. Israelis sat among Americans on the bus, giving students the opportunity to learn about the Israelis’ personal beliefs, viewpoints and army service. 
“I wanted to come here to help you have the best Israeli experience ever,” Illan Peleg, an Israeli participant, said. “I really wanted everyone to ask as many questions as possible.”
 As the Israelis left on day five, participants shed tears as they invited their new friends to visit them in their American homes. 
For students, meeting Israelis their age highlighted the similarities and differences between life in Israel and life in the United States. 
“When I got to know them a little more, it felt like they were just like us except their circumstances were a lot different than ours,” said Max Schain, one of five participants from Oregon State University.
While all participants on the trip identify as Jewish, living as a Jew in Israel compared to the United States has many differences. This was highlighted during an event before visiting Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Center. During this activity, group members shared their personal experiences with antisemitism. Students shared horrifying stories about being followed home, having swastikas drawn on their notebooks and being told antisemitic jokes. 
Due to the Jewish majority in Israel, antisemitism does not present itself in the same manner. The Israeli peers were shocked to learn about the prevalence of antisemitism present today.
For some group members, talking about antisemitism was a reminder of the need for Jewish people to have a Jewish state.
 “I feel like it’s a good thing a place like Israel exists, because I do think Jewish people need somewhere to go to in case worse comes to worst,” said Hannah Wald, one of 13 participants from the University of Oregon.
Participants visited several holy sites including the Western Wall. At the wall’s plaza, they were surrounded by Jews, each praying in their own way as they placed a note in the wall’s cracks. Many of the men on the trip put on tefillin while at the wall. However, Blake Lee, a student from OSU, was denied this opportunity by a Chabad rabbi, because Lee’s Jewish roots come from his father. Lee was upset and disappointed. He had looked forward to this moment for a long time. 
“At the Western Wall, I wasn’t allowed to put on tefillin, and I was told that I wasn’t Jewish by several people,” Lee said. “Which is not something that I had ever heard before in the United States.”
During the following days, Lee learned that different streams of Judaism have different definitions for “who is a Jew.” The trip allowed him to explore what Judaism means to him and how he hopes to carry that Jewish connection moving forward. Lee picked his Jewish name, Yeru, and fostered a friendship with the medic on staff, who gifted him a book about Judaism. By the end of the 10 days, he felt a close connection to his Jewish roots. The trip helped Lee to decide to have a bar mitzvah celebration.
“I have to choose to be Jewish, and I did that here,” Lee said.
Birthright Israel provided participants with various experiences from the Golan Heights to the Negev desert. Students experienced Tel Aviv’s nightlife, floated in the Dead Sea and rode in Jeeps. They tasted various foods and learned about LGBTQ+ rights. Through these experiences and the many conversations in between, they cultivated connections with each other and their Israeli peers. 
Jewish adults ages 18-26 can get a free 10-day trip to Israel. birthrightisrael.com.

Romie Avivi Stuhl is a third-year journalism student at the University of Oregon.  Avivi Stuhl grew up in Israel for 11 years before moving to Oregon.  Since moving to Oregon, she directed the play The Diary of Anne Frank, testified for mandatory Holocaust education and took courses about the conflict in the Middle East.


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