Student trip strengthens connection
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Student trip strengthens connection

YU’s solidary mission’s hands-on work strengthens emotional bonds

The group stands together after a Stand With Us workshop about combating media bias against Israel.
(Photos Courtesy of Yeshiva University)
The group stands together after a Stand With Us workshop about combating media bias against Israel. (Photos Courtesy of Yeshiva University)

From January 17 to 24, 20 handpicked undergraduate and rabbinical students from Yeshiva University were in Israel meeting with political experts, military personnel, terror victims, and other Israeli citizens to gain a better understanding of the current wave of terror, sometimes called the “stabbing intifada” because many of the attacks are carried out by Arab teens wielding knives.

These personal encounters took on an extra level of meaning to participants when they learned that one of the people with whom they met during the solidarity mission, a 17-year-old recent immigrant from Brooklyn, was stabbed on his way from praying at the Western Wall on January 30.

“It was really personal for us,” said Shaina Hourizadeh of Englewood, a junior psychology and pre-law major at YU’s Stern College for Women. “We’re writing to him and having someone visit him on our behalf. But even if the victim hadn’t been someone we had met, we feel empowered now and will definitely be more active. I want to know everything that is happening in Israel and how I can help.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander of Teaneck, YU’s vice president for university and community life, said that YU students always take action after a terror attack in Israel, for example by organizing rallies or prayer vigils. “They want to show our brothers and sisters in Israel that Yeshiva University stands shoulder to shoulder with them during these frightening and uncertain times, and they want to make a difference for those who are hurting most,” he said.

Mission participants doing a metalworking activity with victims of terror at OneFamily’s Jerusalem headquarters. (Photos Courtesy of Yeshiva University)
Mission participants doing a metalworking activity with victims of terror at OneFamily’s Jerusalem headquarters. (Photos Courtesy of Yeshiva University)

“The goal of this mission is to provide the students with rare opportunities to connect with the situation intellectually, emotionally and practically, as well as take ownership and become part of the solution in their own unique and creative ways.”

The mission’s itinerary included, among other activities, meeting with families and officials in Gush Etzion, the bloc of towns south of Jerusalem where many stabbing and car-ramming attacks have taken place; workshops with HonestReporting and Stand With Us about combating media bias and advocating for Israel; an interactive discussion with United Hatzalah’s voluntary first-responder team; a tour of the mixed Arab-Jewish Yad B’Yad (Hand in Hand) elementary school in Jerusalem; helping a farmer struggling to reestablish his farm after the 2005 eviction of Jews from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip; a barbecue with lone soldiers, and a session with Jerusalem Post political correspondent Gil Hoffman.

Ms. Hourizadeh said the presenter at Stand With Us told the group that “she had buried three close friends during the second intifada. Instead of saying ‘I can’t handle this,’ she took a job to advocate for Israel. That was the general tone of everyone we met on the trip — that no matter what, we won’t allow these things to override our love of Israel. It showed us the amazing resilience of the Jewish people.”

At OneFamily Fund’s support center for victims of terror in Jerusalem, the students met with a former police officer who had worked in an anti-terrorism unit until he suffered an injury in an attack that left him unable to serve. “He said that everything in his closet was uniforms, and he had to re-identify himself completely,” Ms. Hourizadeh said. “He became interested in the jewelry trade, and we each made a necklace with him to donate to orphans of acts of terror.”

Some of the missions’ most memorable moments were not in the itinerary.

Merav Gold of Teaneck, a Stern College senior majoring in Judaic studies, said one of these moments occurred during a stop at a Jerusalem shopping mall during a window of free time.

“In American malls they have mobile phone kiosks, and in Israel they also have Judaica kiosks,” she said. “My friend wanted to buy a wedding present for her brother, and we went to one of these kiosks. The guy was so excited to find out that we understood Hebrew and that we were Americans.”

Merav Gold of Teaneck and Manny Dahari of Chicago help a former Gush Katif farmer weed his greenhouse.
Merav Gold of Teaneck and Manny Dahari of Chicago help a former Gush Katif farmer weed his greenhouse.

The salesman told them about his army service and his subsequent four years in the United States. “He realized that Israel is the place to be and he knows it’s hard, but living other places is just not the same,” Ms. Gold said. “I told him I was making aliyah soon, and his face just lit up. It was amazing to talk with someone who lives in Jerusalem and feels the brunt of what is going on but still thinks it’s the best place in the world and wants us to join him here.”

Another unplanned stop that made a big impact on Ms. Gold and Ms. Hourizadeh was visiting the Meir family in Otniel. Dafna Meir, a 38-year-old nurse and mother of four children and two foster children, was stabbed to death in her home on the day that the YU mission arrived in Israel. The students and the mission leaders decided to pay a condolence call to the family a couple of days later, after their scheduled encounter with Rabbanit Chana Henkin in Jerusalem. Rabbanit Henkin’s son and daughter-in-law were shot to death in a terror attack during Sukkot.

Ms. Gold described sitting with 17-year-old Renana Meir, who had seen the attack on her mother and was sitting shiva surrounded by a group of friends. “She was talking about missing a math test, and I realized that although there are cultural differences between us, and the school system in Israel is not the same as the school system in America, when it comes down to it I could still relate to a 17-year-old girl missing her math test,” she said. “And I can comfort her because I, as a Jew, can say, ‘I can’t really understand what you are going through, but I can sit with you and hear what you have to say,’ and that meant a lot to her and her family.”

Ms. Hourizadeh was struck by the demeanor of the widower, Natan Meir. “It was amazing to see how the husband was not angry at all. He pointed to a sculpture he had on his desk that he had received from the same tribe of Arabs that the boy who had murdered his wife was from, because he had a good relationship with them. He said good relationships are the only way to have peace. I thought, wow, he’s sitting shiva in the very home his wife was murdered in, and he’s not talking about violence but saying not to generalize hatred.”

Winter mission participants meet with Simon Plosker of HonestReporting, a web-based media outlet that monitors bias against Israel.
Winter mission participants meet with Simon Plosker of HonestReporting, a web-based media outlet that monitors bias against Israel.

They learned that it is not unusual for residents of the West Bank to have cordial relationships with Arabs in surrounding villages, and even for Jews and Arabs to be guests at one another’s weddings.

Overall, Ms. Hourizadeh said, the winter-break trip drove home the message that “it’s really hard to gauge a situation from the outside; you have to walk the streets and speak to the people to understand the nuances.

“We have so many snapshots, and now we have to try to encapsulate what’s going on and translate that to our friends here. We have an opportunity to educate people, face to face, about what is going on in Israel.”

The mission to Israel was supported by Beryl and Doreen Eckstein and Neal’s Fund, a social entrepreneurial fund established in memory of Neal Dublinsky, a YU graduate from Queens who died of cancer in 2010, when he was 47.

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