By Tim Conceison, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Prior to enrolling at the University of Massachusetts, I had never been exposed to a very large Jewish community. Israel was one of the last things to cross my mind, and as a result I maintained only a very elementary understanding of its complexities. Through the efforts of both David Project interns as well as others who had previously traveled to Israel, I decided to apply for a spot the UMass Israel trip taking place in Winter 2018 and was fortunate enough to be granted one.
Arriving on a Thursday, we were only briefly settled in before experiencing what was my first ever Shabbat. Through Shabbat, I was exposed to two of its key components which I immediately decided that I would want to carry with me back in my life at home: emphases on both community and self-reflection. On our first Shabbat the 30 students from our group came together to celebrate alongside a handful of Israeli university students, where we were able to learn about each other’s cultures. On the second, we were welcomed into the home of a gracious host family who was eager to hear of our experiences in their country. As a result of connecting with those around us, was able to form its own close-knit community that enhanced our ability to experience Israel together.
Shabbat by definition is a day of rest and an opportunity to reflect on the past week while preparing for the next. While in the desert as we approached the Dead Sea, our tour guide Amit explained to us that “In America, people always ask how you are doing. In Israel and in other cultures, the emphasis shifts to how you are simply being.” As student leaders, several of us often times focus on our academics, organizations and jobs while failing to make time for ourselves - I’m probably the biggest offender. With involvement in Student Governance and Greek Life while balancing in coursework it’s very easy to lose sight of taking time to simply reflect. Not only did experiencing Shabbat remind me of this, but it inspired me to integrate it into my daily routine moving forward.
Growing up Catholic, I came into the trip unsure of how I could connect to a self-proclaimed Jewish State. Beginning with a visit of the Church of the Beatitudes I was quickly able to feel a connection with my own faith which was unforeseeable just days before. Understanding this feeling, I was then able to instantly relate to those around me as they made the connections with their own faiths. I was never aware how multicultural Israel was, especially within the Old City of Jerusalem. Through the opportunity to view sites from various faiths and interact with those of different beliefs who maintained a genuine enthusiasm for their cultures, I was able to recognize how Israel’s culture is designed to instill coexistence nationwide.
Despite a desire to coexist, one of our trip’s main themes, we learned that several obstacles stood in the way of achieving this. With every opportunity I had to learn more about the conflict, I only understood the growing complexities that come with finding a solution that will appeal to all parties. In an opportunity to speak with passersby in Tel Aviv, we quickly found that several people do not envision a solution in the near future yet long for an end to the fighting. At home in the United States, the conflict is made out to be very black-and-white, while in reality this is far from reality.
While in Israel, I was able to connect with several student leaders on my own campus who I otherwise would have been unlikely to ever do so. Here, I truly believe I made some lifelong connections with some incredible individuals. In just ten days, we were able to put together countless memories on the beaches of Tel Aviv, the streets of Jerusalem, and the seats of our tour bus. These all involved an array of laughs, the sharing of countless stories and the discussions of many of the impactful concepts we were exposed to on the trip. Because of our strong sense of community, these interactions were able to remain both positive and meaningful.
When dealing with and unpacking a nation such as Israel, it is impossible to do so without considering what caused its need to exist in the first place. Throughout history, the Jewish people have been forced to flee their homes in search of safety - a trend which has been far too common throughout the past few centuries of human history. In an effort to reflect on this, we were given the opportunity to visit and experience Yad Vashem - Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. On a trip which had largely been centered on experiencing the positivity and genuine excitement surrounding the potential of a Jewish State, it was incredibly important to be reminded of why history provoked such a state to first be established. In comparison to Washington D.C.’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem allowed me to more thoroughly connect to and begin to understand the Holocaust on a personal, humanized level. My expression when leaving Yad Vashem, the only time I can recall not laughing or smiling on the entire trip, exhibits the feelings and emotions I will carry with me throughout my lifetime.
As I walked out, I questioned why society could allow something like the Holocaust to happen just 75 years ago. I questioned how a genuine hatred for any group of individuals could be allowed to spread and take shape on such a massive scale. I immediately became frustrated as I realized how far we still have to go to conquer global intolerance in 2018. As these frustrations rapidly mounted, I separated myself from our group and proceeded to the overlook of Jerusalem at the end of the museum. Here, I was able to recognize a beautiful sight of a multicultural city, which has been the epicenter of various conflicts for thousands of years, sitting still in the distance. Understanding that there were several different cultures able to coexist in one of the world’s most important cities, I quickly remembered why I and other student leaders were in Israel to begin with.
To promote change in the world, we must first come together and understand why our society is the way it is. As time progresses, it will quickly become our responsibility to create the change we wish to see in the world. By participating on this trip, I was able to learn what changes must be made, connect with other leaders of our generation and begin to develop my own strategies on how to promote those changes in society beginning at the University of Massachusetts.