A group of 17 Cornell students spent two weeks of their winter break in Israel and participated in Hillel’s Birthright Israel program, during which they heard Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speak.
Birthright Israel is a world wide organization affiliated with Hillel. The program offers free 10 day trips to Israel for anyone aged 18 to 26 who identifies with Judaism and has never been on a peer-group trip to Israel.
According to the organization’s website, “The Birthright Israel trip is dedicated to giving students a connection to the State of Israel and helping them discover or rediscover their Jewish identities. Since its inception three years ago, over 30,000 people have participated on a Birthright Israel program and over 10,000 have gone on one of Hillel’s trips.”
Rachel Isaacson ’02, Jewish student life coordinator for the Yudowitz Center for Jewish Campus Life, coordinated and led the trip.
Isaacson said that Avraham Infeld, a member of Hillel’s Counsel for Jewish Affairs, expressed one of Birthright Israel’s main objectives when he said “We wanted to have every Jewish baby born with a ticket to Israel tied to its umbilical cord.”
The trips are free for participants, funded in part by the Israeli Government, hundreds of Jewish organizations and many prominent philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.
This year, more than 4,000 students and young professionals from around 20 different countries, including Brazil, France, Canada and Russia, participated in Birthright Israel.
On Sunday, Jan. 12, participants of all of the international trips came together in Jerusalem to hear Sharon speak, which the organization deemed the “mega event.”
Isaacson said Sharon thanked the international crowd for going to Israel and showing their support. “Sharon asked us to remember the importance of going to Israel and to make Aliyah [immigration to Israel].”
Susannah Gordon-Messer ’03 also participated in the trip and described the mega event as an amazing experience. “Just the fact that they managed to bring together that many people from all over the world was incredible.”
Messer explained that the Cornell student group included a “peace and politics” theme sponsored by the New Israel Fund and the Anti-Defamation League. She said that although not all of the students supported Sharon, “In general, Sharon got an incredibly warm reception.”
Jan. 12 was the night of the double suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Sharon was only able to speak for a few minutes before being escorted to Tel Aviv.
“I am not a big fan of him [Sharon], but I was impressed that he didn’t give us a political agenda. Even though I am not a fan of him politically, his presence was strong,” said Christopher Dial ’04, a participant in the peace and politics group.
The Tararam and the Taglit Ensemble, two Israeli bands, played at the event and enlivened the atmosphere.
Over the course of the trip, the students met with various politicians and party leaders, including the leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, Yossi Sarid, the mayor of the Gush Etzion region and Israeli and Palestinian journalists.
“We got to do some amazing things that a non-tourist would never have the opportunity to do,” Messer said.
Dial summed up the experience by saying, “In one word, I got a sense of meaning. [Israel] is not the kind of place you go as a spectator. It is an identity-changing place that is an internal journey as much as it is a physical/external journey.”
Archived article by Sarah Workman