Why traveling to Israel is more important for young adults now than ever

“A police car is the first thing I see when I wake up and look out my window each morning,” a member of a Jewish fraternity on campus at the University of Florida recently shared with me.

It has stood watch there for months following several incidents of antisemitic vandalism at the student’s fraternity house. Every time he sees the police car, he said, it reminds him that he is Jewish and lives in a house full of Jewish brothers. It used to be that recognizable symbols of Jewish life included a mezuzah, a kippah, and a Magen David necklace. Today, it’s a police car.

Working with Jewish students every day as executive director of the University of Florida Hillel, I see how the past few months have left many Jewish students feeling isolated and alone. They see videos of Jewish students attacked on other campuses and wonder: Am I next? Should I take down the mezuzah I hung proudly on my dorm room door only months ago? Is it safe to be seen going to Hillel on Friday night? How should I respond in class when the professor or my fellow students speak against Israel? What should I do in the face of protests on campus demonizing Israel and the Jewish people in the most grotesque terms? 

The pressure of campus life and the ways Jewish students have been targeted, excluded and marginalized has impacted student well-being. Their Jewish identity has become more fraught, which is why young people need to visit Israel now more than ever. 

Last year, our Hillel helped send over 500 students to Israel, more than any other campus in the country. The transformative impact of immersive Israel travel on Jewish identity and community is well documented. Every year I see students return from Israel excited to engage with Jewish tradition, take Jewish learning courses, educate their peers about Israel and be part of the Jewish community in more significant ways.

Young people today are the loneliest generation on record, and widespread loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily. On campus, Jewish students’ loneliness has been exacerbated by growing concerns over their safety. Others have drifted apart from friends who lack empathy for their lived experience as Jews or disassociated from friends who express antisemitic views. Some retreat entirely to avoid feeling any pain.

As a result, countless students have sought out Jewish life on campus, where Hillels nationwide are seeing a surge in student engagement, including here at the University of Florida. We know from experience that visiting Israel can have an even greater impact, especially when students can stay connected through Hillel to reflect on experiences, continue exploring their Jewish identity and learn more about Israel when they return.

When I was recently in Israel with Hillel educators from across the country, I was struck by the unity of Israelis in their grief, their prayers for the hostages and their families and their willingness to step up and support their country. Those we met also shared a common concern for Diaspora Jewish communities. It was shocking to hear that many were more concerned about the safety of Jewish students on campus than they were about their own safety. Our conversations there reinforced the powerful connection of Jewish peoplehood, one that young people can benefit from experiencing firsthand.

My personal experience in Israel also helped me understand that while Israelis are still mourning and struggling with the trauma of Oct. 7, they also insist on regaining a degree of normalcy. It can serve as an example to young Jews in the U.S. who are navigating fears around expressing their Jewish identity publicly. In Israel, they will see people living whole and meaningful lives despite existential threats, which makes these moments of joy even more profound and meaningful.

Illustrative. Scene from Israel.

Traveling to Israel offers young Jews a safe and open place to learn about the current political situation and struggle with its moral complexities. These difficult conversations are deeply polarizing in the U.S., which leads many to avoid them and instead focus on countering Israel’s detractors and safeguarding Jewish life. The ability to be on the ground in Israel, speak directly with the individuals most affected and engage in dialogue across differences can inform their advocacy for Israel back home in the U.S. and strengthen their connection to the global Jewish community.

As a parent who worries about the safety of my children, I understand how counterintuitive it may seem for parents to send their children to Israel right now. However, just as we have worked to strengthen our communal security infrastructure in response to the surge in antisemitism, so too must we spiritually fortify our young people. Traveling to Israel has the power to do precisely that. There is no better way. There is no more critical time.

Rabbi Jonah Zinn is the executive director of the University of Florida Hillel.