A total of 30 students participated in a 10-day trip to Israel over winter break, 27 of them through Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel, the largest-ever Union contingent on the popular cultural immersion experience.
Many students deemed it, in the words of Matt Halman ’15, “the best learning experience of my life."
“I could not have imagined it would affect me in the way it did,” said Danielle Stansky ’15. “The sites, history, culture, food, people – everything about the country is unique. At the same time, I was able to feel so connected to this environment.”
Union students have been involved for years in Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free first-time, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults 18 to 26. Funding comes through private philanthropists, the Israeli government and local Jewish communities around the world.
The Union students were selected by the College and Hillel International after an application and interview process. In Israel, they traveled with 15 Hillel participants from Dartmouth College.
Joining Halman and Stansky on the trip were: Jesse Allen-Dicker ’13, Benjamin Berger ’15, Darcy Berger ’13, Stacy Berger ’13, Gabriel Biederman ’14, Jason Cohen’13, Katherine Drebin ’15, Olivia Dworkin ’15, Carla Gottlich ’15, Katie Greenbaum ’13, Deborah (Kim) Grinhaus ’15, Matthew Halman ’15, Shayna Han ’15, Stacey Jackson ’15, Olivia Joyce ’13, Shari Kram ’13, Madeline Levine ’13, Marisa Lieberman ’15, Rachel Magin ’14, Shelby Marks ’13, Alexandra Napp ’13, Nancy Pace ’15, Cody Portin ’15, Lacey Reimer ’15, Andrew Rouff ’15, Tess Skoller ’13, Zak Smolen ’13, Jennifer Taubes ’14 and Sara Zeltsman ’15.
“For a small school like ours to have 10 percent of its Jewish student body in Israel at the same time is quite amazing,” said Hillel Director Bonnie Cramer, who staffed the trip. “It attests to the strong desire for students to experience everything Israel has to offer and to connect with their Jewish culture and heritage.”
Among the highlights, she said, was being in the country over the entire eight days of Hanukkah, a time when Festival of Lights displays lit up streets and whole cities, particularly Jerusalem.
The group also visited Ein Gedi, the Dead Sea, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, Jaffa, Masada, Mt. Herzl, the Negev Desert, Sfat, Tel Aviv, Tiberias, Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial) and other key religious and cultural sites.
Other highlights included “Hillel Conversations” about a range of topics aimed at strengthening participants’ connection to their Jewish roots. The discussion about Jewish memory, for instance, was held in the courtyard at Yad Vashem following a private tour and talk by a former schoolmate and good friend of Anne Frank.
For Jason Cohen, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, this chance to meet a living witness “truly hit home… Growing up in a family with multiple survivors, I was accustomed to hearing stories and seeing images from the Shoah at early age. This helped me mature into an adult who deeply believes in sharing and teaching the facts and truths of the Shoah,” he said.
“In our group discussion, I was able to convey my maternal grandparents’ stories of survival to my peers. I know they will never forget these stories, even though my grandparents are no longer alive to tell the world themselves.”
In addition to the educational and cultural aspects of the trip, students enjoyed the camaraderie with their peers and a five-day period in which eight Israeli soldiers joined their tour bus.
Now, back on campus, “It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm that returning students bring about both Israel and their Jewish identity,” Cramer said. “I’m grateful that our Hillel is reaping these benefits made possible by the Birthright philanthropists.”
In 2009, Union was designated a “Small & Mighty Campus of Excellence” by Hillel International, a distinction that offers a number of resources and privileges, including funding for peer immersion experiences.
Union was among a handful of colleges – including Dickinson College, Elon University, Hamilton College, Kenyon College, Smith/Amherst Colleges and Wellesley College – in the second cohort of schools to earn this designation. There are some such 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.