BE’ER SHEVA, Israel — Falling rockets and warning sirens were not on the agenda when eight students from Rutgers School of Law-Newark signed up for a six-day visit to Israel.
But none regretted coming on the trip, part of an exchange with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, even after being herded into a “safe room” on their first day in Be’er Sheva.
If anything, the high alert in southern Israel earlier this month only highlighted the lessons of the exchange, which was meant to demonstrate BGU’s model of engaging the Negev’s vulnerable populations.
“You can take courses anywhere,” said Dr. Richard Isralowitz, professor in the Department of Social Work at BGU. “The key element of this program is making connections with the community and learning from the charged experiences.”
Isralowitz helped arrange the program, the latest in a series of exchanges between Rutgers and BGU begun in 2007. The law students, accompanied by clinical law professor Jennifer Rosen Valverde, focused on child rights and advocacy and more particularly on BGU’s commitment to bridging the divide between “town and gown.”
The students were to live with young Israelis taking part in a centerpiece of this approach, BGU’s Open Apartments Program. The Israeli students live rent-free among residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods in Be’er Sheva. In exchange, the students run recreational activities and classes in music, sports, and computers for the residents.
The Rutgers students, most of whom are not Jewish, were a mix of second-year and graduating students, ranging in age from 24 to 41. Few had been to Israel before.
Isralowitz and his colleagues — including Ya’ir Ronen of the Department of Social Work and Ilan Kalgrad, coordinator of the Open Apartments Program — hoped that by living with Israelis the students would form personal relationships with their Israeli counterparts. Indeed, even before a cease-fire was announced between Israel and the Gaza militants, the BGU students took them to a jazz bar and a Purim party.
The Rutgers students arrived at BGU on March 11, the same weekend that Gaza terrorists fired some 50 rockets on Be’er Sheva and surrounding towns. A handful of rockets eluded the Israelis’ new Iron Dome defense system and landed on random targets. While the campus was largely closed down, the students stuck to a busy schedule that included visits to several social service programs and lectures on Israel’s legal system, children’s rights, and family law.
Isralowitz said the school put safety first and arranged for the visiting students to bunk at a BGU facility near Ashalim, about 22 miles south of Be’er Sheva.
By Tuesday, March 13, however, the students were back on the Be’er Sheva campus and talking excitedly about what they had seen and heard.
‘The real deal’
“We’re learning that this is a young country that is progressive toward child rights and committed to improving their own system,” said Timothy Pedergnana of Hoboken.
Joy Durham of Passaic Park said she would like to bring a version of the Open Apartments Program back to Newark. She and others noted that Be’er Sheva, a former desert outpost teeming with students, old-timers, newer immigrants from the former Soviet Union and North Africa, and African refugees, includes a familiar mix of struggling single mothers and families where the fathers are in jail or out of work.
“We saw the same exact issues we see in towns like Newark,” said Durham. “This kind of service in the community should be part of the curriculum.”
For others, the close contact with Israeli students and neighborhoods had a personal impact.
Jason Bost of Belle Meade was surprised by Israel’s diversity. “My whole image of Jewish culture was what I saw in Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” he said. “When I got here and saw the different ethnicities, I had no idea I was in Israel.”
At a local market, the cashier engaged Bost in a 25-minute conversation. “He wanted to know what I think about the rockets,” he said. “He asked deep, interesting questions.”
Boris Zaydel of Wayne had been to Israel just two months earlier, on a Birthright Israel trip. “Birthright’s goal was to get me to fall in love with Israel, but this trip is much more diverse. We’ve seen the Bedouin populations, Moroccans, and Ethiopians. Here we are getting the on-the-ground real deal,” he said.
Jordana Mondrow of Bergenfield had also been to Israel before. As an Orthodox woman who wears a head scarf, she was curious how she’d be regarded by secular Israelis. She ended up staying with a secular woman and the two became fast friends.
“It’s special to have Israelis who care about child advocacy and not about religious differences,” she said.
These kinds of student-to-student relationships were missing from past exchanges, said Isralowitz, who lived in Paterson and Fair Lawn before making aliya. The Rutgers-BGU relationship — begun when he was a visiting professor at Rutgers — built on partnerships between the southern Israeli towns of Arad and Tamar and various New Jersey federations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
With a green light and some seed money from BGU president Rivka Carmi, Isralowitz and his partners sent out proposals to New York-area schools in November. John J. Farmer Jr., dean of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, responded enthusiastically.
For the BGU faculty, the exchange highlighted its Community Action Unit, which reaches out to a range of underprivileged populations in the region, including Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Bedouins, and the poor.
“We represent child advocacy and social justice in the widest senses of those words,” said Ronen, himself a lawyer as well as a lecturer in social work. “When they return to Newark, we hope they’ll be able to apply what we give here.”