Students, both Jewish and not Jewish, discuss their Hillel Milwaukee ‘Side by Side’ trip to Israel | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Students, both Jewish and not Jewish, discuss their Hillel Milwaukee ‘Side by Side’ trip to Israel 


Local college students went on a trip to Israel, with visits to Palestinian cities, and came back with a core lesson: We need to listen more intently to one another.  

Hillel Milwaukee brought together 17 students — both Jewish and non-Jewish — for an “all-encompassing, immersive” trip to Israel from May 23 through June 3, 2022. 

Called “Side by Side,” the program is meant to showcase that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “isn’t as black and white as it may seem.” Side by Side was designed to equip both Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders with the wide range of narratives that can lead to better informed campus conversations. Sponsored by Hillel Milwaukee, the trip was possible because of a grant from The Maccabee Task Force. 

“We as Hillels focus so much on sending Jewish students to Israel. But there’s a whole group of students out there who are part of this conversation on campus but don’t have a chance to see it firsthand themselves,” said Hillel Milwaukee Executive Director Deb Carneol Fendrich. “To witness students experiencing their important holy places was really beautiful,” Assistant Director Anna Goldstein Koenig added.  

From the Gaza border to the northernmost tip of Israel, students met with journalists, officials and locals such as secular Israelis, Arab Israelis and Christian Palestinians. Leading up to the trip, Goldstein Koenig and Carneol Fendrich hosted three training sessions to prepare the students for having difficult conversations. During these preceding sessions, they worked to avoid influencing anybody’s perspective.  

“You don’t want to give them only one perspective before they actually get there,” Goldstein Koenig said, reflecting on the weight that the in-person programming has on each student’s opinion.  

“There’s no expectation of how they’re going to react,” said Carneol Fendrich. “If they’re not coming home from this with more questions, then we’re not really doing our job.” 

Nathan Russell, a non-Jewish participant, appreciated his time in Ramallah, where he found the spices and produce vibrant, and his meeting with the future mayor of Bethlehem. At the meeting, Maher Canawati shared his future mission to protect and unite the people of Bethlehem.  

“Before, I was adamant about a Jewish state. But I never thought beyond that…person to person, not just in a governmental sense,” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student participant Travis Lehman said. “After visiting Palestinian towns and talking to them, I can understand what they actually care about. Not what the media says is important, but the reality of it.” 

Travis indicated he learned about how Palestinians are concerned with political differences, having to deal with checkpoints, economic issues, and wanting improved access to water, healthcare, and pay. “While this is our homeland, Palestinians also look at it as their homeland since they have also been here for hundreds of years,” Travis said.  

Student participant and president of Hillel Milwaukee Michaela Brooke hopes to take back the information she learned and to create programming for students to learn more, such as offering speakers with varying perspectives so students can feel like they have more of a grasp of the conflict. Her wider goal is to give students a chance to “identify themselves within” the conflict. 

Although the three students the Chronicle interviewed had different pre- and post-trip perspectives on Israel, all three shared one thing in common: their main takeaway was to listen more intently when engaging in difficult conversations.  

“When you try to formulate your opinions [before learning about all sides], you throw yourself to one side and neglect the other,” Russell said. He recommended formulating one’s opinions after the listening is done, and that includes a lot more listening than one may think. “You have to take a lot of things into consideration before you can form your opinion, and I didn’t have enough of that [before the trip.] Before the trip, Russell said, he heard only a one-sided narrative about what was going on in Israel.  

When you listen, you can expose yourself to what Russell deems “the parts that you don’t see… as a whole, we did this by looking at conflict and looking at culture.” Now that he’s learned this in practice, he admits that “everything has changed, from how I look at things now to how I try to look at the media in the U.S. to making sure people are truly respecting culture.”  

Listening, however, is only possible with meaningful interpersonal connection. “A lot of us came from different places but were all able to connect with each other on a personal level, which I think made those difficult conversations easier to have,” Brooke said. 

Both Brooke and Russell vouched for the closeness of the group dynamic, and beyond that how supportive this was to the success of the group. The 17 students were only able to have these difficult conversations by becoming friends.  

“We were all taking care of each other, a little family over there,” Russell said.