For the first time in its history, KU Hillel, the University of Kansas’ Jewish community, took non-Jewish students on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel at the end of May.
The trip, called KU Perspectives, lasted for 10 days and included 21 students. Sixteen of the participants were non-Jewish students and five were student leaders from KU Hillel.
Planning for the trip started in February, when KU Hillel began recruiting for the trip. Students chosen were leaders involved in campus organizations such as Student Senate and political groups, according to Melanie Edwards, KU Hillel’s engagement and innovation associate.
“We were looking for influential campus leaders from all different types of organizations that could be able to develop and join a cohort of KU campus leaders on an experience in Israel,” Edwards said.
Though the trip was sponsored by a religious organization, students did not have to travel for religious purposes.
Cayden Fairman, a junior from Grand Blanc, Michigan, studying environmental studies, does not identify with any major religion but elected to travel with the group to better his understanding of Middle Eastern conflict.
“I wanted to go because I have heard a lot of things in the news, not just about Israel but about Middle East conflicts in general,” Fairman said.
Edwards said this was a major part of the trip’s purpose. It was designed so students could gain a better understanding of life in Israel by talking to people from many religions and backgrounds.
“It’s an opportunity to hear all of these narratives to form your own perspective on Israel and that region,” Edwards said. “Every day on the trip, we heard from a variety of different voices. We had the opportunity to meet with all of these different people living in Israel, so we could hear their narratives and their perspectives and their stories.”
On the trip, the group heard the stories of many Israelis, including multicultural families, Palestinian students, Arab-Israelis, Jewish settlers, Ethiopian immigrants, Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews.
For Fairman, it was humbling to hear these stories. One that especially stood out was of a woman who lived in a village near Gaza, which is controlled by a terrorist organization.
“In this small town, their reaction time for when a siren goes off to when a rocket will hit the ground is three seconds. So at all times, they are three seconds away from a bomb shelter,” Fairman said. “This mother that we were talking to had a kid that took a trip somewhere north, and he didn’t know that life existed without a bomb shelter or rockets or terrorism in his backyard.”
The trip was eye-opening even for the KU Hillel student leaders who had seen Israel before. Macie Clawson, a senior from Hastings, Nebraska, studying political science and Jewish studies, spent all of last semester studying at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
Though she lived there for several months, Clawson said this trip showed her sides of Israel she had not even thought to explore.
“In this church, there’s the stone that allegedly is where Jesus was laid after he was crucified. I’ve gone to this church multiple times, but I had never gone with people who were Christian, so to see them have an emotional reaction to this place was so special to me,” Clawson said.
“It was also very eye-opening for me to realize that this land is so special, way beyond Judaism or even people in 2019," Clawson continued.
For both Clawson and Fairman, the trip was memorable largely because of the messages of peace the group heard from the people there.
“We actually saw a city in the north where there was a church, a synagogue and a mosque all across the street from each other," Clawson said. "I got to meet an Imam in a mosque and talk about coexistence. I think that that was so pivotal to the trip."
Though much of the time in Israel was spent speaking with others, students also had the opportunity to see biblical sites such as the Sea of Galilee, and tourist attractions such as the Mediterranean Sea.
Because of the trip’s success, KU Hillel is planning another trip over winter break and hopes to continue this opportunity for all KU students.
“I learned so much in those 10 days. Almost as much as I did in my entire semester,” Clawson said. “It was our first year and it was such an amazing trip, so I can’t wait to see how it grows into something that Hillel continues to do.”