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On far-off trips to Israel, Boston college students meet their neighbors

Posted by Your Town  December 19, 2012 01:01 PM

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By Jake Lucas, Globe Correspondent

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Sam Hoffman boarded the plane to Israel without knowing anybody in his 40-person group. 

But when he left the country 16 days later, Hoffman, a Boston University student, had made a spate of new American friends from colleges all over the city, created a tight-knit relationship with an Israeli solider and, above all, formed a new appreciation for his Jewish identity.

In a city riddled with college campuses, Boston students don’t often mingle between schools, especially at BU. But Birthright trips, sponsored by BU’s Hillel House in combination with an organization called Taglit-Birthright Israel, offer free, 10-day guided trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 25 who have never been there on an educational program like Birthright.

“The whole idea behind the birthright trip is to connect them to their Jewish identity,” said Doron Karni, vice president of international marketing for Taglit-Birthright Israel. The non-profit organization gets a third of its funds from the state of Israel, said Karni. The rest, he said, comes from philanthropists.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, based in New York, was formed in 2000, and since then has had 400,000 participants, including 42,000 in 2012 and 15,000 from the Boston area alone. The organization offers various trips for different situations and interests, ranging from trips sponsored by colleges to trips catered toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“There’s a lot of thought about how those 10 days are built,” said Karni.

BU’s program associate for Birthright Israel, KateLynn Plotnick, explained that although many schools in the Boston area offer trips sponsored by their on-campus Hillel, some of the smaller schools, such as Boston College and Simmons College, don’t have such programs. In light of this issue, larger schools that offer trips allow students from smaller schools to go with them. BU is among the nine schools in the New England area that do this, and it takes many students from schools in Boston.

Hoffman, a BU student, said there were a few students from other schools in his group, such as Berklee College of Music and MIT.

For Hoffman, the first few days of the 10-day trip were, as they always are, cliquey. Then, half way through the trip, eight members of the Israeli Defense Force joined the group of American college students. That part of the trip is called Mifgash, or “encounter,” and it is all-important in building the lasting connections that are a central part of Birthright trips.

Hoffman said he still keeps in touch with the students from other schools that were on his trip. “It’s the best part of it,” said Hoffman, a sophomore in BU’s College of Communication. “I think everyone felt really connected over it. By the end of our trip, we all realized how close we’d gotten.”

This opportunity to mingle with other college students is especially interesting for BU students, who are known for not voyaging outside of the immediate areas surrounding BU’s campus, sometimes called the “BU Bubble.” Scott Waxenbum, a BU sophomore in the School of Management, said he understands the attitude behind the “BU Bubble.”

“BU’s a pretty big school, and there are plenty of people here,” he said. “I could understand if you went to a smaller school why you might want to branch out a little bit, but I feel like BU is kind of a self-sustaining community.”

Waxenbum is a part of Sigma Alpha Mu, the Jewish fraternity at BU, and is going on a BU-sponsored Birthright trip over winter break with a few of his fraternity brothers.

Max Brand, a second-year graduate student from MIT, went on the same trip as Hoffman and said the same is true for other schools in Boston.

“Boston is a pretty small city and it has so many schools in it, but a lot of them don’t interact, or people are so busy that they don’t get the chance to go to other schools,” he said.

MIT offers its own school-sponsored trip, but Brand went with BU to be with his sister, a junior in BU’s School of Management, and got to know students from BU and other schools. One girl, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York who also went on the trip with a sibling, is now his girlfriend.

Recent graduate of Simmons College Sharon Ramot went on a Birthright trip with BU the summer of her sophomore year and said she still keeps in touch with the people she met on the trip. Through them, she even made friends with students from Northeastern University after she got to Boston.

Neither Ramot nor Brand said they ever felt out of place among the BU students. When Ramot’s group visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example, she didn’t feel any separation from the other students.

“At that point it didn’t matter what school you were from,” she said. “You were just a student there, experiencing the place.”

A major part of Birthright is geared toward trying to allow young Jews to see Israel in a different light than the political battleground it is usually portrayed as. Karni said one of the parts of every trip is a visit to the nation’s economic capital, Tel Aviv. He said the trip aims to show the Israel as a high-tech, up-and-coming start-up nation.

The recent turmoil in the country has only made this more difficult. Waxenbaum said many of his friends and family are concerned for his safety.

“A lot of people have told me I’m crazy and I’m going to get hit by a rocket,” he said. “I just tell them that they are misinformed about the security threats in Israel and it is safer than the news makes it out to be.”

Taglit-Birthright Israel recently released a statement telling participants that trip destinations were being “reviewed and monitored on an hour-by-hour basis” for safety and that trips would be cancelled if they were deemed unsafe. The statement also said the organization has never cancelled a trip in its nearly 13 years.

Plotnick herself went on a Birthright trip as a college student in 2006, which, she said, gave her a passion for the nation and led her to the career she’s in now.

“I had always felt a connection to Israel, but I wasn’t able to understand and verbalize it because I’d never been there, and once I was there it became a little more concrete,” she said. “It felt like home, it felt comfortable.”

Hoffman said his time in Tel Aviv on Birthright made him realize how alike some parts of Israel are to the United States.

“They want to show us how similar the two cultures are, and it really was,” he said. “If you go to Tel Aviv, it feels just like Miami.”

Although the trip is about exploring Jewish identity, this idea can mean different things for different people. Hoffman said most of the students on his trip were “not religious at all.” In fact, that sentiment was something the students could connect with each other about.

“What I took away most from the trip is that you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have to believe in it to be a part of it.”

However, he said he felt the bonds he made with the people he met during his trip, and in particular with the soldiers he met, were what most helped him understand the nation and get a grasp of the Jewish community.

Having soldiers join the trip for Mifgash is a way for young Jews on Birthright to spend some time with their Israeli peers because, as Plotnick explained, in Israel, “everyone who is 18 to 22 or 23 is an Israeli soldier.” That’s because around that age, Israelis are fulfilling their mandatory military service.

Hoffman chose to stay another six days past the 10 days the trip lasted, much of which he spent with a soldier named Raz. Hoffman stayed at Raz’s house; they hung out, watched movies and Raz’s mom cooked for them. Hoffman has a grenade pin Raz gave him on his keychain and a pin from his battalion on his backpack.

By the end of the trip, Hoffman and Raz called each other “brother.” Hoffman admits that at first, he didn’t think he would get along with the soldiers.

“I thought, ‘These people are going to be weird, they’re not like us.’ They’re exactly like us,” he said.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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