Jewish Students Find Global Connections — and Schisms — in Israel Program

Different Views of Peoplehood Explored on Exchange

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By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 22, 2014.
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Thousands of students from around the world head to Israel every year to discover the country and its culture. And what do they learn? “In general, Israel education is about falafel, geography and one directional learning about Israelis,” quipped Shana Zionts, director of student life at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

This winter, a delegation of young adults, most of them students, spent two weeks in Israel in search of something different. During a visit to Kibbutz Maagan Michael, near Hadera, Zionts, one of the delegation’s leaders, explained, “We’re looking for an intense exchange.”

About 40 people from Germany, America and Israel travelled around Israel, holding marathon discussions on the meaning of Jewish community and the connections between Jews of different nationalities.

They are enrolled in a study program called Student Leadership for Jewish Peoplehood – Building Global Connections. Until recently, the program was limited to Germans and Israelis, but in the fall it took its first Americans.

Funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and UJA-Federation of New York, the leadership program is a partnership between Israel’s Oranim Academic College, the Central Welfare Office of the Jews in Germany and Columbia/Barnard Hillel. It was a chance to deepen their ideas on Jewish “peoplehood,” discuss what unites and divides them, and be inspired by each other. The Jewish Agency estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 Americans under the age of 30 visit Israel on organized programs each year.

“Peoplehood,” according to Micha Balf, a lecturer at Oranim and one of the trip’s organizers, describes the sense of kinship that Jews feel toward each other regardless of nationally or their specific religious denomination. “My expectations for assistance and understanding from other Jews stem from that amorphous sense of Jewish peoplehood,” he said. Balf thinks that “peoplehood” sums up the sense that Jews “have a sense of mutuality, we have some sense of collective responsibility and we have a certain literacy in Jewish ritual, knowledge and culture.”

The itinerary for the trip focused heavily on educational settings. The participants observed a “social activism” class at Mavuot Iron High School at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, visited a mixed Jewish-Arab school near Hadera, and spoke to new immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union. They also met with members of the interdenominational feminist group Women of the Wall and went to south Tel Aviv, where they talked to illegal immigrants from Sudan and Eritrea.

And they were inspired. “To the Germans, you’re not this or that kind of Jew, but just a Jew,” said 19-year-old Deborah Pollack from Manhattan, a member of the Conservative movement. “I think I sometimes get way too caught up in my movement and this encounter gives me a whole new outlook and a wider focus.”

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