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Program Ignites Student Passion for Jewish State

September 13, 2007 By:
Lynn B. Edelman, JE Feature
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Jewish high school seniors from the Greater Philadelphia area celebrate Shavuot -- Israeli-style -- during a Senior Advocacy Trip to Israel in May, which was sponsored by Federation.

Alana Grife's passion for Israel was fueled by six trips to Israel -- five of which were in the company of her father, Rabbi Saul Grife, the religious leader of Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim. Her experience as a participant on the Senior Advocacy Trip to Israel sponsored by the Center for Israel and Overseas marked the very first time that Alana traveled to the Jewish state with people her own age.

According to Pam Pearlmutter, Federation's Passport to Israel coordinator who accompanied the students to Israel, the trip was designed to prepare area high school seniors for the challenges they might face on college campuses, some of which are hot-beds for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity. This unique program engaged students in Israel-advocacy seminars before they departed on the 10-day trip to Israel.

Asaf Romirowsky, manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Center, brought in two college students to discuss, peer-to-peer, how to advocate for Israel on campus. One student attends the University of Pennsylvania, a school with a high percentage of Jewish students. In this supportive environment, this young woman felt comfortable exploring her role as a student activist with the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The second student to present attends Penn State University, a sprawling school in a rural setting. He shared with the group his frustrations when the school canceled a showing of the art exhibit he created on Mideast terrorism on the grounds that it unfairly depicted Arabs.

"The young man felt that his freedom of artistic expression was curtailed in a misguided attempt by the university to be politically correct," explained Romirowsky, adding that "it is critical that the Jewish community prepares its college students -- many of whom are away from home for the very first time -- to take a pro-active stance towards Israel."

From the time they arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the young people were immersed in visits to historic, cultural and recreational sites, and met with educators, historians and political analysts to deepen their understanding of the challenges to Israel's safety and security. Pearlmutter explained that the teens performed community service at the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen in Jerusalem and helped to rebuild the community of Kiryat Shemona, a northern Israeli town that was hard-hit by last summer's war with Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon.

Pearlmutter's friendship with the Grife family influenced Alana's decision to participate in the trip. While enrolled at Springfield Township High School, she co-founded and served as co-president of the school's Israel Club. She also served as president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Region of Young Judea during her senior year.

While Alana firmly believes that "almost everything on the trip was a highlight," her most memorable moments involved "climbing Masada at four in the morning and watching the sun rise, walking through the desert under the stars late at night, and meeting and bonding with the Israeli teenagers who lived at the kibbutz we visited."

An avid science-fiction fan, Alana draws parallels between Israel and the movie "Star Wars."

In "Star Wars," she explained, "characters live in sand dunes and wear rags suggesting that the action takes place thousands of years ago. However, their flying cars and light savers suggest a futuristic time frame."

Israel is also anachronistic, according to Alana: "She is both a beacon of tradition from thousands of years ago, as well as the home of some of the most advanced technology in the world. Israel's ability to be both only adds to her credibility and excellence."

Alana believes that this trip opened her eyes to "the harsh realities of the growing anti-Zionist sentiments on college campuses across the country and throughout the world."

She feels confident that she is now prepared to "handle any situation backed up by knowledge, respect, and most of all, passion."

She will have an opportunity to test the strength of her Israel-advocacy skills when she returns to the United States after participating in "Year Course Through Young Judea." This accredited college program combines academic study with volunteer service. Alana will rejoin the Class of 2011 at Hofstra University in September 2008.

'Milk and Honey'

Ben Kurland graduated from Upper Dublin High School in June, where he was active with Sigma Alpha Rho, a Jewish fraternity. He is now a freshman at George Washington University.

While Ben was moved by the group's visits to the Western Wall, Masada and the Dead Sea, the discussions about Israel advocacy both before the trip and during the mission were personal highlights.

He explains that "we modern Jews view Israel through two different lens of the same telescope. Through one, we see Eretz Zavat Chalav u'Dvash -- Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. This is the holy land promised to us by God and entrusted into our care."

This vision of Israel -- as the land rich in ancient history, and where our ancestors prayed -- was the focus of Ben's trip to Israel two summers ago with the Ramah Seminar, designed for former campers of the seven Ramah camps in North America to build connections with the land and people of Israel.

Ben believes that the Federation trip placed greater emphasis on modern Israel, presenting its many accomplishments and the myriad of challenges -- both internal and external -- to its safety and security.

"While we still touched on the historic connection between Diaspora Jews and Eretz Yisrael -- on this mission we also looked at the threats of groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and other organizations bent on Israel's destruction," he stated, adding that "the land of Israel may have been promised to us by Hashem, but there is a world of politics, diplomacy, misinformation and hatred which is plaguing the land as we speak."

Ben's passion for Israel is reflected in the decor of his dorm room. Over his bed is an Israeli flag. Above his desk, which is littered with Arabic textbooks, is a poster of Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall. He is happy that his school has a large Jewish population, and seems to be supportive of Israel.

And for a young man with political aspirations, the campus' location in Washington, D.C., is ideal. "I took a run up Embassy Row the other day, the Capitol is within walking distance, and the Pentagon is a short train ride away, " he said.

He looks forward to "diving into" the political process -- applying the knowledge and advocacy skills gleaned from his participation in the Federation mission to help Israel.

Pearlmutter is currently recruiting 16 students for next year's trip, tentatively scheduled for May 2008. For more information, call 215-832-0837 or e-mail: PPearlmutter@philafederation.org.

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