Well it’s back to classes after spring break! It’s always a bit hard to jump back into things immediately following that week when (hopefully) we’ve all completely checked out for a bit. There will probably be quite a few blogs on the epic adventures of SC students during this break, especially considering this was many of our first real spring breaks since high school due to Covid in 2020 and the change to the academic calendar in 2021 (also due to Covid). I feel very fortunate for the trip I was able to experience to Israel and Palestine which still doesn’t feel real to me even as I type those words. The whole week was a wonderful blur of ancient religious sites, beautiful desert and valley scenery, and hilarious times with new friends. I think it would take me a week to unpack everything we did and all the thoughts that came along with it, but I’ll just make a little time-capsule of a blog to explain a bit of how this trip went.
This Fact Finders trip was funded and led by USC Hillel which is the center for Jewish student life and community on campus. The transportation arrangements, itinerary, housing, and everything in between were all handled by them and their generous donors, both of which I am extremely grateful to for this experience. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I will never forget nor stop appreciating.
We began our journey with a 13 hour flight to Israel and drove to Jerusalem from there where we spent the next 5 days exploring the New and Old City. With our very knowledgable Israeli tour guide with us all along the way, we delved into the history of the various religious sites within the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the geopolitical issues surrounding the region that stretch back thousands of years. We walked through bustling markets in the Muslim quarter, saw the 14 Stages of the Cross, walked the grounds of Temple Mount outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, took some time at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopped at the various ruins of past conquering empires (Roman, Christian, Ottoman, you name it), and walked down alleyway after alleyway of old stone till our feet went numb. Oh, and did I mention it was 45ºF and raining all those days? It even snowed one day! That certainly didn’t stop us (or really it didn’t stop our tour guide who led us to each spot on our itinerary without fail) and though our shoes were soaked through and fingers numb by the time we sat down to dinner each night, we were in great spirits after long days of exploration. We also spent some time at the Holocaust Museum and other memorial sites in Israel. Each night or sometimes scattered throughout the day we’d have a speaker of some sort, such as a representative from the organization StandWithUs and an NPR international correspondent in Jerusalem. One evening was filled with beer tasting alongside local Hillel students while another we spent at an overlook in a border city with the Gaza Strip hearing about the conflicts there.
Then we traveled into the West Bank and cities under the Palestinian Authority like Bethlehem, Rawabi, and Ramallah. I really appreciated listening to the stories and perspectives of our different guides as well as local Palestinians that spent the day talking with us. We got to dig into some delicious lunch we helped prepare (mostly just cutting up cucumbers and tomatoes but it’s the thought that counts!) with a group of Palestinian women in a refugee camp near Bethlehem and discuss with them about their families and experiences within the West Bank while we cooked. We had a chance to learn about the “separation/security” wall (it goes by many names depending on who you ask) put up along the border of Palestinian territories as well as see the Church of the Nativity – the site of Jesus’ birth. The next day was another day of perspectives from Palestinians as we were guided around the new city of Rawabi, got a chance to ask questions of a Palestinian political leader, and listened to the life story of our guide who patiently answered our many questions throughout the day.
The rest of the trip was just as jam-packed, floating in the Dead Sea and basking in the famous healthy-skin-inducing mud one day before touring in the Golan Heights along the Sea of Galilee and the Syrian border. We met with even more amazing speakers on our final journey to Tel Aviv – two women who were participants in and now employees at the non-profit Sindyanna of Galilee that provides jobs making olive oil, spices, and baskets for women to provide for their families (a joint effort between Arab and Jewish women to enhance the connection/cooperation between the two groups) as well as a Druze Muslim woman who started a major tourist business in her town by leading cherry and apple picking sessions along with traditional cooking lessons. In Tel Aviv, our group joined in on Purim celebrations which involved getting all dressed up in costumes and hitting the various restaurants and bars around the city. During the last few days, we got to sit down with a Muslim-Jewish couple who shared their love story that overcame cultural, social, and political conflicts and the creation of a school for Jewish and Muslim children to be educated together, followed up by a conversation with a local poet who discussed with us the underlying social tensions within Israeli Jewish society and read a few of her “spoken word” poems with her. We explored the bustling market scene of Tel Aviv- including a local craft fair, delicious falafel, and a big box of desserts- and wandered the nearby seaside city of Jaffa, trying what one of the student’s affirmed as the best kanafeh (a dessert made of spun pastry and soaked in a sugary syrup) we would find- he was right. With a final tour of the outer neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and a never-ending last dinner together, we packed up for the airport and took our draining 15 hour flight back (great movies on the plane though!)
Overall I just want to reiterate how incredibly thankful I am to have gone on this trip as well as how happy I am to have met all the other students that joined me. It was a really diverse group, filled with students of all different majors, involvements, and interests, which made for some great conversation and discussion on all that we were seeing and learning. I not only came back with a thousand new facts and perspectives, but also with 16 new friends and all the wonderful, hilarious, life-changing memories we made together. Reunions will definitely be happening and we’re all even seeing each other tomorrow for Shabbat 1000, the huge Shabbat service and dinner held once a year by Hillel!