What a trip: College students get new lens on Israel

Here’s one way for college students to spread a pro-Israel message on their campuses: go to Israel and take non-Jewish peers with you.

That’s part of the premise of the David Project’s “Israel Uncovered: Campus Leaders Mission.” The 2-year-old program took a cohort of 67 American college students — Jewish and non-Jewish — on a free trip to Israel over the winter break.

Stanford student Amrita Rao (left) and U.C. Davis student Katie Sherman enjoy a glass of wine at the Golan Heights Winery in Israel. photo/courtesy the david project

The cohort included students from 19 universities, with one Jewish student from each campus accompanied by two or three non-Jews from the same campus. Three of the participants were from U.C. Davis, and three were from Stanford University.

For U.C. Davis sophomore Katie Sherman, 19, the trip was a revelation, in part because the participants were asked to leave their preconceptions behind.

“Before we went, everyone on the trip had to write down their expectations — and then were asked to leave them in the United States,” Sherman said. “Because everyone did that, I didn’t feel people had this negative image [of Israel]. It was all positive.”

The Boston-based David Project works with 19 schools around the country; U.C. Davis and Stanford are the only California schools on the list. Each campus is assigned a coordinator, who in turn helps the students develop programming regarding Israel. The project used to be known mainly for exposing anti-Israel bias on campuses, but in recent years has shifted its focus to training leaders and building relationships in support of Israel.

Former student senators Mariah Watson and Joyce Han, neither one Jewish, rounded out the U.C. Davis contingent on the trip, which had twice as many as participants as the first trip over the 2012-13 winter break.

While the Jewish students did their best to educate their peers about Israel’s history and security concerns, it was traveling through Israel with non-Jews — and getting their perspectives on matters — that proved to be the real eye-opener, Sherman said. “It is unique to see [Israel] if you haven’t had the background and strong Jewish education,” she noted.

Over 10 days in Israel, the students traversed the country, from the Golan to the Negev to Google Israel’s penthouse headquarters in Tel Aviv. The students met with Jews, Christians and Muslims, including artists, political figures and fellow college students.

Each evening, students and trip leaders would gather to debrief. “There was a consensus that even though the sessions were great, sitting on the bus we had the best discussions,” Sherman said.

Jasmine Robinson, a student at Princeton, was one of the non-Jewish students on the trip.

“I didn’t really have any preconceptions about the conflict. I just had a lot of questions, like what is it about Israel that makes it so special to people,” the Maryland resident told the New Jersey Jewish News. She said a visit to the Western Wall on Shabbat helped her understand “the religious significance of the place.”

Added Robinson: “We also met a lot of Palestinian people, and that opened me up to why it was important for diverse races of people to live there … I got to see all different sides, and it was really valuable.”

Dashaya Foreman, another non-Jewish Princeton student on the trip, told the NJJN that the trip “gave us the chance to look at Israel from many perspectives and gave us a chance to develop our own ideas. I learned you can be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. I don’t think one group is completely wrong and another group is completely right.”

Said Sherman: “The biggest thing I took away from the trip was opening the lines of communication with the [non-Jewish students]. The connections you form after the trip are bigger than anyone can imagine.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.