My Hillel Milwaukee trips

Here, Charlee Vrtjak, a student with Hillel Milwaukee, writes about two recent trips to Israel. In a future edition of the Chronicle, she will write about her trip with 20 non-Jewish student leaders at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee to Israel.  That trip is funded by the Maccabee Task Force.

Between the months of December 2017 and May 2018 I will have been to Israel three times. I understand that I am so incredibly blessed and lucky to have these opportunities and I do not take them for granted.

With that being said, the two trips that I have already taken as I write this have been amazing learning and growth opportunities. Israel has been a topic of conversation in my life for as long as I can remember. I studied the history of the land throughout religious school, took Israel classes and have many friends from Israel. This past fall, I decided it was finally my time to go to the Holy Land, so I registered for last winter’s Taglit-Birthright Israel trip and so my journey to the land of Israel began.

I was stoked to be spending my winter break exploring Israel for the first time. I decided to go with a friend and the two of us extended our trip for an extra week, so we were planning to travel in Israel for 17 days. I anxiously counted down to the date of departure.

When the day arrived I could not have been more elated. When we finally landed at Ben Gurion Airport, it was surreal. During the next two plus weeks I immersed myself in all that was ISRAEL. I met new people, explored new places and made memories that I will cherish forever.

However, while I had an incredible time there was something missing. After years of building up all that was Israel in mind, I was expecting an ‘aha’ moment that would make me feel so connected to the land. I came to the conclusion that the reason why I had felt that way was because I was already connected. I did not need to physically be in Israel to create the special bond. I had it all along. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the Birthright experience, I knew I had another opportunity coming my way soon.

When the second trip rolled around I was not really sure what to expect. I was prepared that it was not going to be like Birthright. No itinerary could have prepared me for what was to come. This trip was comprised of 10 selected Jewish student leaders from Hillel Milwaukee. While most of us knew one another from attending Hillel, many of us were just acquaintances before this journey. Throughout the trip experience, I had a special moment with every person and by the end of the trip we were like a little family.

This leadership trip was one of learning and exploring, challenges and encounters. We were not focused on just Jewish ideology and pro-Israel beliefs. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone. We met with Palestinians in Territory A to hear their side of the story. I learned that it’s okay to feel empathy towards the Palestinians and also be pro-Israel. We went to The Dome of the Rock and learned the history of Islam and how it relates to this holy place. We visited Bethlehem and saw the birthplace of Jesus Christ, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was killed and is remembered for rising from the dead.

We learned about the diversity in Israel while in Haifa and how Arabs and Jews are working together at a center called Beit Hagafen. We spent time at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, where they anonymously treat injured Syrians at the border, and learned from our amazing guide about all of the proxy wars as it relates to the war in Syria. We participated in a LGBTQ+ Rainbow tour of Tel Aviv.

We visited three wonderful organizations – Save a Child’s Heart, Beit Sarah and Beit Hashanti house, that truly fulfill the commandment of tikkun olam. I could go on and on, and there are still no words to truly convey how incredible this trip was for me. I was given the gift of so much knowledge, that I plan on using to better the world. I was uncomfortable at times, but it created new ways of thinking about the people and the land. This trip gave me that moment that I was lacking from my first trip. I had my ‘aha’ moment. I feel connected to Israel in a way I had never felt before and as I write this, I am thrilled to be returning to my second home in May of 2018 as a Jewish student leader of the Side by Side Mission. This 10 day trip will partner 20 non Jewish student leaders from University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with five Jewish student leaders to travel and learn about Israel. The goal of this trip is to educate non-Jewish students about Israel and to allow them to develop their own narrative rather than try and decipher the often mixed messages presented from the different student organizations.

Again, I’m incredibly grateful to our donors and am so fortunate to travel so extensively to my homeland.  I can’t wait to share my stories about our next expedition.  Stay tuned!

Charlee Vrtjak is a sophomore with University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.