Amid thousands of shoppers preparing for their Sabbath dinners, a few dozen UT students took in the sights, smells and sounds of the Machne Yehuda Shuk, Jerusalem’s largest open-air market.
Thirty-eight Texas Hillel students, like thousands of others, traveled to Israel over winter break as part of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. The program began in 2000 and offers 18- to 26-year-old Jewish people the opportunity to take an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for 10 days with the financial support of philanthropists and the Israeli government.
“The program is a way for young Jewish people to strengthen their Judaism and connect to the land of Israel,” said Texas Hillel Rabbi David Komerofsky, who traveled with the group.
In Israel, Hillel students said they experienced a sense of belonging and a familial connection to the people they met there. Broadcast journalism senior Samantha Unell said she may change her post-graduation plans so that she can travel back to Israel for a longer period.
“I’m homesick for a place I never thought I’d feel that way toward,” Unell said. “Making that trip to Israel is the most welcoming feeling I’ve ever felt as a Jew.”
Unell said the highlight of the trip for her was meeting eight members of the Israeli Defense Force who stayed with the Hillel group for five days of their trip. In every Birthright trip, Israeli soldiers join the groups to meet Jewish youth from other countries and share what it is like to grow up in Israel, and Komerofsky said it is an important way to meet people directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Many of the students on the trip have only heard negative things about Israel and the army from the media,” he said. “Meeting these young people gives them a way to see that the young Jewish people in the [Israeli Defense Force] are much like them, even though they are living a very different life.”
Government junior Dale Hanson said he decided to go on the trip to learn more about Israel, but that he was disappointed by the lack of balanced information with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said is much more complicated than most people believe.
Hanson noted that the group attended a Birthright event at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke and encouraged them to advocate a very specific pro-Israel viewpoint.
“It’s definitely a wonderful experience — the trip of a lifetime — but it was filled with Israeli propaganda,” he said. “There was very little mention about the Palestinians and some of the human rights violations and failures of the Israeli Defense Force.”
However, Hanson added that the trip opened his eyes to an unbreakable bond between Jews and Israel and said he made strong connections to people he met and places he saw there. A woman he met at a grocery store in Golan Heights, a range of hills on the border between Syria and Israel, felt like a grandmother when she offered her help and showed him pictures of her family, he said.
Unell said she felt that she had a much broader perspective on the conflict after the trip and would encourage any eligible Jewish student to go on a Birthright trip.
“There’s no reason at all not to go,” Unell said. “You can be religious, you can be not religious, you can be anti-Israel or pro-Israel. Traveling there gave me a wider view and an experience outside of what the media says. You can take from this experience what you want to and apply it in your own way.”
— Additional reporting by Erika Rich