A month ago, if Naomi Gold, a Rutgers sophomore from Elizabeth, had heard about missiles hitting Israel, she would have reacted less strongly. "Before, the places in Israel were just names to me," she said. Although this Orthodox Jew was brought up to love Israel, until she participated in a Rutgers trip to Israel at the end of June, she had never actually been to the country.
The Rutgers trip occurred only a few weeks before the missiles from Lebanon began to strike. "Now the idea of losing the land is so much scarier to me," Gold said.
It has become common in the Orthodox community for new high school graduates to spend the next school year in a seminary in Israel. But most of them opt to take an American program, so although they are technically in the State of Israel, they spend most of the year studying in English with other Americans.
Lea Melamed, the wife of Rabbi Ori Melamed, who heads the Orthodox community of the Rutgers University Hillel, noticed this problem. Until she started working at Rutgers the year before as a Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus educator, this native Israeli had witnessed Americans spending their year in Israel but not integrating into Israeli society. "We were upset by this," said her husband. "So many people spend an entire year in Israel without ever interacting with Israelis."
Melamed felt it would be worthwhile to organize a trip to Israel for female Rutgers students to establish connections between Americans and Israelis.
At the same time, an Orthodox male student at Rutgers Hillel told her husband it would be fun to go on a Rutgers group trip to Israel.
"I was telling him about a pit in Israel that was mentioned in the parsha," the rabbi recalled, "and he told me that we should go see the pit together. So I mentioned the idea after minyan one day, and many guys expressed interest in coming along."
The Melameds decided to organize a two-week Israel trip for 10 female and 10 male Rutgers students, in order to integrate them into Israeli culture and also pursue Jewish studies. The inaugural trip took place last month.
Lea Melamed had taught in Midreshet Orot Etzion, an Israeli seminary in Beit Raban, for many years before working at Rutgers, and she decided to base the Rutgers women there. Her husband had studied at Machon Meir, an Israeli yeshiva in Jerusalem, for four years, and he decided to base the Rutgers men there.
The students were paired with Israeli chavrutot (learning partners), and they took classes, alongside Israelis, that were taught in both English and Hebrew.
"Living and learning side by side with the Israeli students allowed me to realize the true beauty of Israel," Naomi Schanfield, a senior from Fort Lee, said. Even though Schanfield has been to Israel many times, including a year after high school, "this was my first visit in which I truly felt like I was a part of Israel and Israeli society, even if it was only for a short period," she said.
The girls’ seminary had another unusual twist; it is based in Givat Washington, which is in a rural area that is a one-hour drive from Jerusalem. "It felt like it was in the middle of nowhere," Orly Elstein, a sophomore from West Orange, said. Although in the beginning, Elstein said, she was "really nervous" about staying in a place far from anything urban, "it ended up being great. We really got to know the area and appreciate its beauty as we bonded as a group."
Elstein, who had also spent a year in Israel following high school, said that this trip allowed her to "experience Israel in a different way," through both the seminary’s novel location and her interactions with the Israelis.
The Israelis in the schools welcomed the students with open arms, and throughout the two weeks many bonds were formed. At the end of the trip, many of the Israeli learning partners wrote goodbye-letters to their new friends, with promises to keep in touch.
Every few days the two groups would meet and travel around Israel, led by the Melameds. They hiked, kayaked, shopped, and learned about the biblical significance of the land. "We hiked in places that were definitely off the beaten path," Leah Shisha, a senior from Teaneck, said. "The Melameds’ excitement in showing us Israel through Israeli eyes gave me a glimpse of Israel from a totally different perspective than ever before."
Gold had gone on the trip hoping to get "the Israel experience" that her friends always talked about. "I’m so glad that I picked this trip as my first, because instead of getting the typical American-Israel experience, I got to have the Israeli-Israel experience," she said. "I really feel like Israel has become my second home, and Israelis my second family."
The trip was partly subsidized by a number of organizations and other sponsors, including the JLIC and Yavneh Olami an international Religious Zionist student organization. "We contacted every possible organization who we thought had a chance of sponsoring us," Ori Melamed said. "Eventually we got enough money to make it happen."