UMass Hillel House takes 40 students to Israel

By Karen Podorefsky

This past break, between Jan. 1-12, 40 students, 37 of which are UMass students, took a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel through the Awesome Israel trip provider, with staff members Keren Hatkevitz and Kate Rafey. Kate is the Assistant Director for Programming at the Hillel House and also teaches a one-credit seminar there.

Courtesy Radio Nederland Wereldomroep/Flickr

Taglit-Birthright, which is commonly referred to as Birthright, is a free educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit was founded in order to send Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel to strengthen individuals within the Jewish community, their identity, and their connection to their religion and the Jewish people.

In preparation for the tour, both Hatkevitz and Rafey participated in training for staffing a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, conference calls with Awesome Israel, organizing activities and orientation meetings for the students to prepare them to the trip.

The group went to many of the main cities in Israel, including Jerusalem, Akko and Tel Aviv. After hiking Masada and spending the rest of the day at the Dead Sea, the students went to the Mega Event in Jerusalem, an event every Birthright group in Israel at the time attended. There were groups from all over the world, from the United Kingdom to Brazil. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel, spoke and there were numerous musical acts. The entire performance and speakers were live streamed on the Internet. This was the same night the group met soldiers.

Every Taglit group is assigned eight soldiers to befriend and learn from for roughly four days of the trip. They are not there for protection. These soldiers have been chosen to miss a certain amount of time at their base in order to be with the Taglit groups. The soldiers fit right in. Many students agreed that “it was as if these soldiers came with us from UMass. We all became so close, they became our family.” There were eight soldiers, four women and four men, all the same age as the students on the trip. In Israel, students go straight from high school to the Israeli Defense Forces, and then on to college to further their education if they so choose. Only one of the soldiers who participated in Taglit was training to fight in warfare. The rest were in the Intelligence Forces or Education, and one was a photographer.

Josh and Brett Kaplan, juniors, agree that “wrapping Tefillin, [a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah] at the Wailing Wall was the most inspirational and significant because it made me feel more connected with Israel.” They Skyped some of the soldiers upon their return to the States. Many of the UMass students plan to go back to Israel sometime in the near future and the Israelis would like to come to the States as soon as they can. Josh Kaplan added that the trip “fulfilled all of my expectations to feel like Israel was my home.”

Keeping busy from 8:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. at night, each student had an amazingly fun time and viewed the trip as a life-changing experience.

Max Shuchman, a sophomore said, “The trip definitely changed me, as I feel more connected to Israel as well as the Jewish people. I have never been more proud of my heritage as I am since returning from Birthright. Hearing about Israel and seeing the news is a lot different than actually experiencing the country for myself. I can appreciate the beauty and the struggle Israel goes through every day.” The students agreed that they never felt as if they were in danger and the news seems to exaggerate a lot of what is going on there.

Hatkevitz, an Israeli native, says that “staffing the trip was one of the highlights of my work. Seeing the students for their first time in Israel, excited, emotional, exploring everything they can was the pick of my work. Coming back to UMass, and hearing from them that they are looking into ways to get back to Israel and looking into reading more about Israel, made all the work Kate and I invested worthwhile. Even though I grew up in Israel, I feel that staffing gave me a new perspective, the perspective of the students. Things that I saw numerous times throughout my life became more special, things that might have been taking for granted are now more appreciated. We had several discussions throughout the trip of what it means to be Israeli and to be Jewish. I think that this trip strengthened the sense of pride that I feel for being both Israeli and Jewish.”

Every week, Friday night Shabbat services at 6 p.m. and dinner afterwards are provided at the Hillel House. All are always welcome to attend. Today there will be a Birthright Reunion Shabbat to honor all students who have participated in Taglit through UMass.

UMass offers many opportunities for students to go to Israel with service trips and additional Birthright trips, one in the summer and one in the winter every year. This 10-day trip is provided through private philanthropists through the Birthright Israel Foundation, the people of Israel through the Government of Israel and the Jewish communities around the world.

Karen Podorefsky is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].