Two undergraduate students from Elizabeth were among the participants on a weeklong trip to Israel designed to explore their dual identities as Orthodox Zionists and Americans.
Dina Wecker and Orah Jooyandeh of Elizabeth joined 40 students from across North America in Israel from Jan. 9 to 16.
Organized by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future, the trip — called “A Place Called Home” — was meant to explore what organizers call the “complexities of a dual homeland.”
The participants met with a range of Israelis with divergent backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political perspectives. They met with people on kibbutzim, in development towns, in immigrant villages, in towns in Judea and Samaria, and in religious and secular communities.
“These compelling experiences forced the students to examine their shared existential dilemma of loyalty to both a birthplace and a homeland,” Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, told NJ Jewish News. “I believe that these types of experiential programs empower our students to passionately recommit to living purposeful Jewish lives.”
Run with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the trip focuses on what the planners described in a statement as “hot-button issues” — like the price of unity, how ideologies shape and divide people, and how to balance Jewish values with humanism and democracy. Ultimately, it explored the costs and benefits of establishing a life in Israel versus the Diaspora.
Jooyandeh, 19, a first-year student at YU’s Stern College for Women, found herself rethinking things right from the start.
Activities on the first two days focused on Gush Katif, the Gaza community Israeli settlers were forced to evacuate in 2005. At the museum in Nachlaot dedicated to Gush Katif, the students were shown a video shot during the disengagement, showing soldiers pulling people from their homes.
“After hearing so much about it, seeing it on the video was what had the most impact on me,” Jooyandeh said.
Wecker, 20, a junior at Stern, is majoring in studio art with a double minor in psychology and political science. She also spent a school year in Israel, in 2009, at Midreshet Emunah V’Omanut, a seminary devoted to study of both Torah and art.
She said what stood out for her was a visit to Neve Sha’anan, the area of Tel Aviv where many migrants — mostly from Africa — are homeless while Israel evaluates their refugee status. She was moved by the speech from a refugee from Eritrea who described his journey to Israel.
“As a whole, the trip was extremely educational and the speakers we heard from were each top in their fields,” Wecker said. “I loved the trip and would participate again, given the chance. It was an amazing experience.”
On the Friday night of the trip, the YU group shared a Shabbat meal with a Birthright contingent, experiencing their first Shabbat in Israel. There was dancing and discussion and — according to the participants — an inspiring sharing of the excitement about being in the country.
The YU group was led by Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, a rosh yeshiva at YU’s Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies and the rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield. He was accompanied by Shuki Taylor, director of the university’s service learning and experiential programs, and Kiva Rabinsky, a yeshiva teacher and camp director from Atlanta who helped develop the program.
Brander said the students on the trip “recognize that we all need to make sacrifices to empower our destiny as a people, that community is a haven and a heaven for all of us.” He said each student was analyzing what their own role needed to be, and “how they are going to contribute to the colors of the tapestry known as the Jewish people”; the “conversation” on those questions, he added, would continue.
The trip was also memorable for the Israelis they encountered, he said. In Nitzan, a religious kibbutz in southern Israel on which many of the Gaza evacuees were resettled, the students helped local teens paint their youth club house with a mural commemorating Gush Katif.
“Just two hours of informal interactions between the YU students and the local teens was so impactful that 15 of the YU students who extended their trip returned to Nitzan the next week to continue painting,” said Brander. “According to the youth coordinator, more Nitzan teens showed up to this event than any other youth event in the past five years.”