On January 2, 2013, 35 students from 12 different campuses gathered with five David Project staff at the Haas Promenade overlooking modern Jerusalem. As the sun set, we talked about the universality of Jerusalem and the connection the city has to religions and peoples the world over. We wrapped up our discussion by singing the popular song Hallelujah, originally by Leonard Cohen, which illustrates Jerusalem in its lyrics.
That moment at the Haas Promenade was a fitting start to Israel Uncovered, The David Project’s first ever trip to Israel. This was the first trip of its kind, where 12 pro-Israel leaders each from a different university had the opportunity to invite one to three leaders from their campus to come to Israel with them and experience the country together.
It was one of the most diverse groups I have ever seen, and the leadership qualities of each of the students were evident. There were leaders of college democrats and college republicans, members of Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups, many social action groups advocating for causes, such as gay rights, mental health awareness and women’s rights. We had leaders of several student ethnic associations, including the black, Indian, Latino and Jewish communities. We also had leaders from the student newspaper, student government, student athletics and business associations.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime group. To see Israel and its complexities through the eyes of such a complex and dynamic student body was both invigorating and challenging.
Our students were moved by visiting holy sites of three religions. We were amazed by the innovation of Microsoft’s R&D department in Herzliya. We connected with the past at Masada and in newly discovered ancient tunnels underneath Jerusalem. And we were thrilled by the rushing waters of the Jordan River after several days of rain.
We also met with our Israeli peers studying leadership in a special preparatory year before entering the army. For several of our students, this was the first time they got to connect with Israelis their own age, and came away with a new appreciation for the special connection that Americans and Israelis share.
Another highlight of the program was visiting with Palestinian-Israelis in Jerusalem and Haifa and learning about the challenges that an important national minority faces in Israel.
For The David Project, the opportunity was not just one to show off why we love Israel. The trip allowed our student leaders and their peers from campus to “uncover” Israel together and use the country as a conduit for deeper conversations about leadership, advocacy and the importance of understanding one's values as tools to build relationships.
What I uncovered on our trip was that to be a great Israel advocate on campus, our student leaders cannot be only concerned with Israel. They have to cross traditional communal boundaries and get to know their fellow student leaders from across campus. We have to be willing to share our love for Israel while accepting its challenges and understanding the country's complexities.
For our brief ten day trip, The David Project and our 35 student leaders were able to achieve just that: we explored Israel while exploring ourselves, using Israel as a channel for deeper conversation and understanding.
As our students return to school, now with the beginning of the semester, we challenged them to bring back a new understanding of the importance of relationship-building on campus. It is an important challenge, and the key to creating a more positive and serious discourse on campus.
Photo courtesy of Chris McClain, participant, Michigan State University.