What happens when Hillel takes non-Jewish students to Israel?


Last year, University of Wisconsin – Madison student Katrina​ ​Morrison helped lead an effort to criticize Israel on campus. She helped schedule a vote targeting Israel in student government, despite requests from Jewish students to not hold it over Passover.

But when you’re a college student, what a difference a year can make.

“I would want to tell one-year-ago Katrina that she does not know everything and that she isn’t listening to the perspective of everyone,” a repentant Morrison said in a February interview. “I would want one-year-ago Katrina to really do her own independent research on the affairs of the state of Israel as well as the conflict and not just listen to the voices of people closest to her.”

Katrina Morrison, Ariela Rivkin and Brigid Doyle (left to right) are outside the Old City in Jerusalem.

Part of Morrison’s change of heart came over the summer, as she reconsidered and then apologized, but part of it is the result of a remarkable free trip to Israel. In January, University of Wisconsin­ – Madison Hillel brought five Jewish pro-Israel students and 19 non-Jewish students – all of them campus leaders – to Israel.

Paid for by a grant, the week-long itinerary was planned by Greg Steinberger, Madison Hillel’s executive director, and Hillel students. “Hillel got to control the narrative. We got to make the trip ourselves,” said Ariela Rivkin, one of the Jewish students on the trip.

The goal was to offer “glimpses of everything and not shy away from difficult conversations.”

They took the group to the top of the Golan Heights; to see Jewish and Arab women working together to make fair-trade olive oil; to see Israel’s role in helping Syrian refugees at a Galilee hospital; to tour the Old City of Jerusalem; to a security barrier tour; and to meet with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro, among other activities.

In the weeks afterwards, interviews with several of the non-Jewish students demonstrated a strong sense of gratitude for a free “trip of a lifetime,” pleasure in new learning and a newfound appreciation for just how very complicated a country that’s one-eighth the size of Wisconsin can be.

Guide Lior Chacham and to his right, students Nathan Miller and Jack Madison in Israel.

“I never really understood when I heard people say Israel is complex,” Morrison said, echoing sentiments expressed by other non-Jewish participants in separate interviews. “Complex takes on a whole different meaning over there.”

An Israeli medic and security person on the bus became part of the learning. “At some point on the bus she called her father and had her father on speaker phone talking with three or four students just on his view of the world,” said Steinberger. “We had a great group of students who really wanted to participate and learn, just a total hunger for asking questions.”

Non-Jewish students said the trip seemed reasonably balanced, especially given that it was sponsored by Hillel. The trip included a visit to Ramallah and meeting a Palestinian journalist. “I was a little worried that we wouldn’t get to see so many perspectives but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of different people we got to hear from,” said Morrison, who is chair of Associated Students of Madison, the UW-Madison student government.

“I thought that the Israeli government was completely marginalizing the Palestinians, not giving them water, not giving them the right resources … ruining families, bombing families, that the Israeli government was absolutely ruthless,” said Meritt Schoenecker, 20, a sophomore from Waukesha.

The strategic communications major now feels that view was biased. “It’s a learning process. You can never stop learning and growing. It is a complex situation and country,” she said.

From left to right – Back row: Tal Sheffer (Israel Fellow), Iris (Mianzhi) Huang. Second Row: Collin Dott, Ori Etzion, Diego Villegas. Next row: Alesha Guenther, Charlie Mueth. Next Row: Caroline Matkom, Kennedy Borman, Julia Brunson, Greg Steinberger, Nathan Miller. Next Row: Kristi Parsons, Julia Birnberg, Emil Mostrom, Alli Abolarin, Joe Moeller. Sitting on the sign: Mary Grace Larson, Jack Madison, Courtney Morrison (next to sign). Bellow the sign: Brigid Doyle, Katrina Morrison, Ariela Rivkin, Yogev Ben-Yitschak. Submitted photo.

“There’s such danger in this small country. Yet I never felt more safe,” she added. “It felt so cultured and happy and so first-world.”

Collin Dott, 20, a sophomore, remembers a moment before the group met with Israeli Lt. Col. (Res.) Sarit Zahavi at the top of the Golan Heights. Dott thought it was funny when a tour guide told them, “don’t be polite Americans.” Speak up and ask questions, he was told, because “in this part of the world, it’s expected, even recommended.”

Dott, from Duluth, Minnesota, is majoring in applied economics and philosophy and is part of Associated Students of Madison, the student government. He heard about the free Israel trip from one of the Jewish students on the trip.

In the West Bank, the students had a Palestinian tour guide. “He had studied in the U.S. And then he came back,” Dott said. “I think he did a pretty good job of presenting the Palestinian plight.”

“I went into the trip being sympathetic to Israel. I came away from the trip being even more sympathetic to Israel,” he said, quickly adding that he is not anti-Palestinian.

The five Jewish students on the trip were Rivkin, Julia Birnberg, Julia Brunson, Ori Etzion and Yogev Ben-Yitschak.

The trip was funded by the Maccabee Task Force, an organization committed to combatting anti-Israel sentiment and the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement on college campuses nationwide.

“It was definitely not what I expected when I signed up,” said Ben-Yitschak, one of the Jewish students, who lived in Israel for 9 years. The 20-year-old sophomore is from Bayside. “I thought it was really tremendous, even for me,” he said.

When he lived in Israel, he had never been to Ramallah, had never touched the security barrier or seen it up close. This trip gave him those opportunities and more.

Ben-Yitschak thought the complication of the situation in Israel was well demonstrated when they saw a village that was cut straight through the middle by the green line, “showing that it’s not clear-cut,” he said. “People who are living together get caught up in the middle.”

Charlie Mueth, 20, a sophomore from St. Louis, is chief of staff for the college Republicans chapter on campus. Mueth is Catholic.

“It was really inspiring to see people just so proud of their faith,” he said. He was impressed with the “communal attitude” in Israel and the high regard for the military there.

He described Israel as “America’s best ally” and wondered if the trip was sometimes too focused on the conflict. But he added, “I now understand why there still is no solution.”

Alli Abolarin is a 21-year old senior majoring in biomedical engineering. He’s also a Nigerian Muslim and on the board of the school’s African Student Association.

“The trip was amazing. In one word I would say eye-opening. I just didn’t know too much about the Middle Eastern conflict,” he said. “I learned so much. It really opened my eyes to how media portrayal can affect the perspective ….”

He expected a war zone in Israel. “But people are still making a point to live their lives,” he said.

He now feels more qualified to speak on the conflict. “I think if I am in a space where the Middle Eastern conflict is brought up, I think I would share my opinion.”

Which is what, exactly? “I have two words for you,” he said. “It’s complicated.”

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Hillel Milwaukee

University of Wisconsin – Madison is not alone. Hillel Milwaukee is doing a similar trip to Israel. In May, the Hillel Milwaukee Side by Side mission will take 25 students – 20 non-Jewish and 5 Jewish – to Israel.