In the last six months I have gone to Israel three times and in two weeks I will be making it a fourth.
My mom always asked me why I continually go on these trips that are in theory all the same – going to Israel to be a tourist and learn the land, people and politics. I can say without a doubt in my mind that Hillel Milwaukee’s first ever Side by Side Mission was like nothing I have ever experienced in my life.
Sure, there were a lot of similarities to the itineraries from prior trips, but what made this trip so special was the group I had the privilege of going to Israel with. Hillel Milwaukee took five students leaders who have been to Israel prior to this trip and are also already involved with Israeli culture, politics, etc. The other 20 student leaders chosen were students who had little to no experience or knowledge with Israel. The purpose of this trip was to show people the truths in the Middle East.
In my opinion media makes the conflict and just the Middle East in general very black and white, but it is far more complex than it is often spoken about. This trip was supposed to show people what is really going on in the Middle East. We met with people of all different backgrounds to help the members on the trip create their own opinions and narratives with Israel. By no means was this an attempt to create 20 new “pro-Israel” activists, but rather to educate people with truths and give people an opportunity to figure out their connection and identity with Israel.
Whether or not the students support Israel entirely, everyone involved can now speak from experience and be active in sharing their truths. It creates more Israel conversations on University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s campus. People are more likely to hear you out when you have real life experiences to speak from. This was the goal of Side by Side 2018 – to provide experiences, knowledge, create new narratives and then bring it back to campus.
In the two trips prior to this one, I had only experienced Israel with other Jews. In my opinion, I think when you’re Jewish you’re already more connected to the Holy Land. You may be critical of the Jewish state, but you understand the importance of it. This was the first time I went to Israel without Jewish people, so in a way this was a new first for me. I was one of five Jewish people on the trip. Everyone else came from very different backgrounds – every sect of Christianity, Muslim, atheist and everyone’s first trip to Israel. With so many different upbringings it created many different views and opinions prior, during and after the trip. It was a new and interesting experience.
Not only that, but everyone was a leader and because of this many people were very vocal about their opinions and were willing to step up to share their opinions and ideas. With everyone having such different views and ideas, it sometimes created tension or disagreements in the groups, but I think that’s good. It was often said on our trip that when you’re uncomfortable and vulnerable you’re learning and developing the most. I wholeheartedly believe that to be the truth.
We met with people and leaders from both Palestinian territories and Israel in the West Bank. We learned from leaders from many different religions. Met with members from the Knesset – Israel’s parliament. We saw the social action side going to save a child’s heart and the aid being given to Syrians crossing Israeli borders for medical help. We were given so many opportunities to learn from many different people. We experienced the whole country from as far south as the Dead Sea all the way to the Golan Heights. We did it all.
It is challenging to put the last 10 days into words, but I think everyone is coming back to America confused, yet ready to develop their ideas and identities and to share their stories. Even with all the disagreements in our group we created a little family. We all became vulnerable with each other and pushed one another to think a little harder. This was an incredibly special opportunity and I am so happy I was chosen to be a part of this journey and meet all the people I did. I am coming back to school even more ready to share my perspective and love for a country that I call my home. I am excited to see where everyone goes from this trip. We are all required to do an initiative post trip and I am stoked to see how people start that. There is a lot to look forward to and still a lot of growing to do.
Charlee Vrtjak is entering her junior year with University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.