Birthright beefs up security, goes through with Israel trip
Despite November conflict, JRP and Hillel trips go off as planned
January 15, 2013, 11:14 pm·
In spite of the November Gaza Strip conflicts, Penn students proceeded with the Penn Hillel and Jewish Renaissance Project Taglit-Birthright Israel trip over winter break.
Some were initially worried about their safety on the trip due to the outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli violence beginning on Nov. 14 and concluding with a ceasefire on Nov. 21. Apprehension peaked at the first orientation meeting during the first week of December, only a few weeks after the fighting ended.
“There were voices of concern, especially from parents,” JRP Senior Jewish Educator Rabbi Josh Bolton said.
According to Bolton, however, the students were resolute in going on the trip, and approximately 30 Penn students went.
There was “a very determined voice saying, ‘We’re going on this trip, we’re not going to let any conflict stand in our way,’” Bolton said.
The groups took extensive measures to ensure the students’ safety. The Israeli command center knew where every bus went, the tour guides traveled with phones equipped with GPS and armed guards and medics accompanied every bus.
“We take every single precaution,” JRP Assistant Director Emily Perl said. She explained that despite the conflict, extra protection this year was unnecessary due to the already-extensive security.
Students who went on the trip echoed this sentiment.
“We certainly weren’t scared,” College sophomore Rebecca Saionz said.
Bolton added that students felt secure even when visiting the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights — which overlooks Syria and lies only 40 miles from Damascus — the scene of another regional conflict.
Engineering junior Naomi Hachen, West Philadelphia is more dangerous than Israel.
“You want to be careful [in Israel] … but we didn’t hesitate to go down south,” she said. Hachen went on a Sachlav birthright trip — separate from the one co-sponsored by Penn Hillel and JRP — with other Penn students.
A group of Israeli soldiers joined the Penn Hillel and JRP group during their visit.
Since the Israeli soldiers were close in age to students on the trip, their presence “opened a lot of eyes,” according to Bolton.
The trip also marked an important right of passage for some. Five students celebrated their bar or bat mitzvahs in Tiberias, Israel. Other students took on official Jewish names during naming ceremonies.
Another highlight of the trip was meeting 2012 Penn graduate and professional basketball player Zack Rosen. Rosen was an All-American and Ivy League Player of the Year, and currently plays for Israeli team Hapoel Holon.
Although the group visited places like the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv like most birthright trips, it “provided an intellectual journey for Penn students,” Bolton said.
“It’s an opportunity for Penn students to see what stories they want their lives to tell,” he added.
He added that it is important for students, who are generally focused on success, to see a society based on community and family.
“You see people at least encountering Judaism … in a new way,” Penn Hillel President and College junior Josh Cooper said.
Registration for the birthright trip this summer, which is capped at 80 students, opens in February. It may not be a large culture shock for Penn students, Bolton said.
“The only place more Jewish than Penn is Israel,” he added.