Nine students from Monmouth University in West Long Branch returned in mid-August from the school’s first Mayanot Birthright trip to Israel. The two-week journey — part of the program of free trips for young Jews — was filled with pleasures and surprises, many of the participants told NJJN.
“Before the trip I had zero connection with my religion. Visiting Israel put me in touch with my culture and who I really am,” said student Matt Miller, 22, of Tenafly. “It was surreal to go to a place where you feel at home even though you are a foreigner.”
A visit to the Western Wall evoked emotions many of the students said they didn’t realize they had. “Who knew there would be a bunch of 21-year-old non-religious kids from New Jersey standing at the wall crying?” Miller said. “For a lot of people that was the moment they felt something. I had 20 such moments.”
Forging a meaningful connection with Israel was among the primary goals of the trip, said its leader, Rabbi Yaakov Greenberg of Long Branch, who serves as assistant religious leader at Chabad of the Shore in Long Branch. “Watching the students connect with Israel really inspired me. Every single one of them said they wanted to go back. This is a trip that will stay with them forever,” he said.
The tour included visits to attractions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Caesaria, Tiberias, and Sefad. The itinerary also brought the students to the Kinneret, the Lebanon and Syrian borders, the Knesset, and the Dead Sea.
Eight Israeli soldiers joined the group during half the trip.
“One of the soldiers told me that Israel is just as much my land as it is his,” said MU senior Jesse Snyder of Wrightstown, Pa. “That simple statement made a huge impact on me.
“I’ve only been home a few weeks and I already want to go back. I am honestly considering joining the Israeli military for a few years after I graduate. This is something I never would have imagined doing.”
Junior Max Levanda, 22, of Manalapan defined the trip as “the most amazing Jewish thing a non-religious Jew can do. Israel is definitely a place I would love to show my family, and definitely a place I would love to visit again — even if I have to pay for it.”
Chabad of the Shore, which coordinated the trip, offers enrichment programs for Jewish students at Monmouth University. Greenberg oversees the activities, which include holiday and Shabbat events, Lunch and Learn with the Rabbi, and social programs like a homecoming barbecue.
“Universities are the battlegrounds for the future of Judaism. The sentiment toward Israel on college campuses is not good,” said Rabbi Laibel Schapiro, Chabad director. “We are giving Jewish students opportunities on the Monmouth University campus that they’ve never had before. If we don’t engage them and give them the chance to explore their Jewish identity, it is very challenging to get them back.”