This Winter Study, an initiative was organized between the College and the Taglit-Birthright program. Nine students at the College coordinated with students from other colleges in the greater Boston area, such as Amherst and Wellesley, in order to organize and attend a trip to Israel for 10 days during their winter breaks. This was the largest number of students from the College to ever go on a Birthright trip together. Israeli Program coordinators ensured that the group not only experienced Israel together, but also came back with renewed opportunities to engage with the Jewish community on their respective campuses. While the College itself did not endorse the trip for religious purposes, Winter Study seemed to me the perfect time to explore my interests outside of my majors and create a Winter Study 99 on Israel. Each student planned his or her own 99 on topics ranging from domestic violence to Zionism to the Israeli Defense Forces, which enriched our experiences abroad and made sure that we were able to connect Israel with the purple bubble.
When the nine students from the College and 30 other students from the greater Boston area landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, we were greeted with an enthusiastic “Welcome home!” from our Israeli tour guide, Michal. Slightly confused, we put down our bags and began a strange dance in which we all jumped around in a circle and yelled Hebrew words whose meanings we did not know. Over the next few days, we ate the standard meals, took the standard pictures for Facebook, did more standard icebreakers and learned the standard facts about Israel and its inhabitants.
But at some point, something changed. None of us are quite sure what it was or when it happened, but there was a moment for every single person on the trip when we realized that the people around us were destined to become our closest friends, that the country we were in really did feel like our home and that the Israeli soldiers who spent the trip with us were unequivocally some of the best role models we would ever meet.
Each of these experiences was destined to shape us during our 10 days in Israel and back at the College. We stopped thinking that the icebreakers were stupid, we listened eagerly for every new fact about Israel and Hebrew word of the day and the sites we visited took on a whole new level of importance. We fostered a connection with the land of Israel that I don’t think would have ever been formed on a guided tour from a travel agency or a visit with our families. This wasn’t an ordinary Birthright trip; we saw Israel through the eyes of Israelis while surrounded by our peers from the College.
The College should encourage more intellectual, faith-based travel as it adds to our community. It makes me incredibly proud that a second trip (this time with only Williams and Amherst students) will be organized this summer for those who wished to go but couldn’t during Winter Study. I believe it is really important for an institution like the College, which so avidly tries to support diversity, to advertise and promote independent religious initiatives so that students can explore their heritage and religious roots in off-campus situations. One additional benefit that these trips create is a strengthening of the on-campus Jewish community. Every student on the trip came back more determined to go to Shabbat dinners, attend services at the Jewish Religious Center and get more involved with Jewish initiatives and activities on campus. By connecting to Judaism off-campus, students also strengthened a relationship with the Jewish community that had been present all along. Being Jewish on campus isn’t always easy, but knowing that there are other students who are as interested and involved as I am makes it much easier and more rewarding.
Shorashim, the Hebrew name of the trip provider for the College, literally translates as “roots.” I did not go on my trip expecting to discover my roots or move to Israel and serve in the Israel Defense Forces. I did not go because I wanted to reconnect with my spirituality or kindle a new relationship with Judaism. I went because I had always thought of Israel as a country full of deserts and camels, and I wanted to know what it was really like. Some of the students on the trip did decide to serve in the IDF, and some figured out that they really did appreciate Judaism as a religion once they approached it the right way. Some reached a better understanding of their heritage, and some immersed themselves in a new culture just to see what it was like. But no matter what we did, all of us came away from the trip with 46 new friendships and memories that would last forever, which are undoubtedly results the College should support. On the last night, when we all went back to the airport, we stood in our circle again. Our leaders explained to us that what we were chanting were the Hebrew words achim and simcha – brothers and happiness. This time, when we all jumped around in a circle, it didn’t feel strange at all: It felt right. We were home.
Nina Horowitz ’14 is from Armonk, N.Y. She lives in Hubbell.