"It changed me," says Igor Tsives, a 20-year-old computer science student at the College of San Mateo. Like the other 24 students on the pilot Northern California Hillel Council program, Tsives had never been to Israel before.
"I had no sense of Jewish identity. I knew it was a nationality; that's what it said on my passport. Other than that, I knew nothing. It became a much bigger part of my life after the trip," says Tsives, who is planning to attend a Jewish student conference this month.
Currently, only two Hillels, in San Francisco and Brooklyn, N.Y., have full-time staff members devoted to emigre outreach.
Steven Sacks, who holds that position at San Francisco Hillel and helped plan the trip, hoped that emigre students would feel more comfortable visiting Israel together because they were "starting from the same place" in their Jewish background. He works with about 2,500 Jews from the former Soviet Union, ages 17 to 25, who attend local colleges.
"Many of them feel inferior as Jews, because they come not knowing the first thing about Judaism. It wasn't something they grew up with," says Sacks.
For that reason, the 18-day tour was specially designed to include intensive Jewish history seminars and visits to Russian-founded kibbutzim and emigre absorption centers along with the usual tourist sights.
Sacks says the students were amazed to see the diversity of Jewish life in Israel and were particularly fascinated by the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.
"Their enthusiasm was unbelievable. When you've been denied something, like Jewish identity, the interest in history and Jewish culture is far more than with Americans. Americans are cavalier, they aren't going, `Tell me who I am,'" he says.
Tatiana Glukhaya hadn't even been inside of a synagogue until she was 19, just before leaving Kiev.
Now 22, the San Francisco State student says she took the trip to lessen her confusion about Judaism.
"I think I know, not everything, but at least a lot of things that happened to Jews. Lots of things were very new to me, but I loved the country," says Glukhaya.
Like many of the students, she visited relatives who had chosen to emigrate to Israel rather than to the United States.
For Stella Gelman, 21, seeing Israel gave her a chance to "see what I missed" by moving to San Francisco instead of Israel. The S.F. State biology student says she found the Israeli lifestyle closer to what she was used to in Russia.
But she adds, "I'm happier to be here because this is where most of my family is."
Still, she says the visit to Israel not only inspired her to read more Jewish literature, but gave "more meaning" to the synagogue services she has been attending at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco..
Funding for the trip came from several sources, beginning with a grant obtained by emigres themselves.
Students involved with Hillel met with noted philanthropist Edgar Bronfman, an international Hillel board member. While he was in the Bay Area last year, a group of students went to his hotel room and convinced Bronfman to provide $25,000 in seed funding for the trip. The Koret Foundation and Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco added scholarship funding.
Participants also contributed toward the trip and agreed to work for local agencies that helped subsidize it.
Each student will be working five hours a week for 14 weeks on projects including helping other newcomers, setting up campus Tay-Sachs screenings and creating a World Wide Web site for Hillel.
Sacks says that as the students start their volunteer projects, word is spreading about the trip to Israel.
"I have students already coming up to me, begging me to plan another trip so they can go."