Sometimes, one needs to go out of Israel to have an igniting Jewish experience that ultimately, empowers you as Israeli.
By Anna Vainer
“So why do we need to travel outside of Israel for a Jewish experience?” asked one of the students as members of the Connectech group grabbed their last sips of coffee before boarding the plane at Ben Gurion Airport. It was a valid question. Ten students from Hillel Technion, who were elected to take part in the delegation, delved into their Jewish identity questions and debated Israel-Diaspora relations right after their classes, on campus. They have spent two semesters in digital chavruta with their counterparts from Hillel MIT and also hosted them for a week in Technion. So, really, what kind of Jewish experience can a slightly-cynical, -seen it all in the army-, socially-involved, result-oriented sabra expect to take place/experience in Boston (unless you consider shopping for electronics in a Hassidic-run store one example)?
“Relax and enjoy it, bro,” answered another one. “It is our turn to get pampered.”
Last May, the group of Israelis hosted their peers from MIT and assumed full responsibility for the Jewishness of the experience. The students were the perfect Israeli hosts: warm, patriotic, and slightly overbearing. Always taking responsibility. They worked hard to make sure that their American counterparts got the most out of their visit, showing the best of what Technion, Haifa and Israel have to offer. Throughout their stay, the Hillel MIT students visited cutting edge science labs, spent Shabbat together at Kibbutz Hanaton and engaged in discussions on various Jewish aspects of Israeli society. Israeli students naturally assumed that all the “heavy lifting’ content-wise is done here in Israel, in this place where Israeli and Jewish identities overlap and often collide, providing such rich grounds for discussion about the future of the Jewish People and their role in it. Here, every experience is assumed to be a Jewish one, simply by virtue of happening to Jews living in a Jewish State, and every news item triggers a Jewish debate…
That is why, a few months later, when the Hillel Technion students traveled to Boston, the experience caught most of them off guard. The week the students spent in Boston was centered around Hillel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in close contact with their MIT Hillel peers. Set in the beautiful, “screensaver-like” scenery of Massachusetts foliage, the program offered variety with visits to academic labs and community organizations and while in between, the students enjoyed the nerdy thrill of sneaking into famous professors’ classes. But mostly, for the first time in their life, the delegates saw for themselves what Jewish life is like when nothing is taken for granted and witnessed community members working hard to make sure that Jewish life is constantly vital, appealing and welcoming to all community members. Whether it was a “Game of Thrones”-inspired Torah class, Shabbat services for both Conservative and Orthodox students happening in one room, a kippah-wearing female Rabbi or the mixed seating at Kehilat Israel Congregation, ConnecTech participants were struck by the amount of thought and effort that their peers and communal organizations invest in outreach to every member and the adaptation to their profiles needs and interests.
Maayan Kislev, a sophomore second year Computer Science student at Technion and ConnecTech participant, shared that “In Israel, it is easy for me as a secular student, to reject Jewish life and tradition and do nothing. In Boston, I can see how much the community struggles to make the Jewish community a “home” for everyone and realize that we should do the same. I will make conscious efforts to be involved in Jewish life in Israel and seek out opportunities to get actively involved.” Another student, Avihay, soon to be Civics Engineer graduate from the Technion, says that for him the week’s journey to Boston equal to taking was a long, hard look in the mirror and facing some difficult questions about how Israeli society brings the meaning of being Jewish back to its citizens. Then he adds, while other group members nod, it is “how do I hang on to these insights I gained during the program? Where should I channel these energies in my life outside of campus?”
And that is why sometimes, one needs to go out of Israel to have an igniting Jewish experience that ultimately, empowers you as Israeli. As techies put it, “a closed circuit.”
Anna Vainer is Director of Hillel at Technion and Haifa University.
“ConnecTech” is a year-long fellowship program operated by Hillel in Technion (Israel) and Hillel in M.I.T. (U.S). It strengthens Jewish Peoplehood through learning and informal interaction, creating personal bonds between small core groups of students at each institute. The students take part in one-on-one text study throughout the year, host and travel to the other’s campuses to be inspired by Jewish life, technological innovation and personal leadership, deepening people-to-people connection between the Haifa and Boston communities.
ConnecTech is supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Boston-Haifa Connection.
Technion students can apply take part in its fourth cohort here.