Submitted by Rachel Kaplan, Executive Director of Cincinnati Hillel

An experience they will remember forever. 

A few weeks ago, 20 University of Cincinnati students embarked on an immersive ten-day trip to Israel and Palestine as part of the Student Leadership Trip, staffed and organized by Cincinnati Hillel. Through personal encounters, cultural exploration, and open dialogue, I watched the students delve into the complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I’ve seen them return home with a nuanced, rich understanding of this part of the Middle East

This trip is unique as it is open to student leaders from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, who hold respected leadership positions across the university. Most of the students on the trip are not Jewish, but have faced the challenge of engaging in difficult conversations about Israel within their respective communities. Over the course of ten days, we traveled across Israel and Palestine, actively asking questions and seeking firsthand experiences to grow their knowledge.

Overall, the most impactful part of our students’ journey was the people. We met with a wide array of individuals including Druze, Bedouins, Arab Israelis, Palestinian Arabs and Christians, and Jews, as well as experts in innovation, government officials, and religious leaders. All of them graciously shared their stories with our students, who listened intently and with genuine curiosity. 

By the third day of the trip, I could feel a shift. Students began to challenge their assumptions about Israel and the Palestinian territories, and view the complexities facing the people with more compassion. As Dean Hayes, ‘24, Resident Advisor, Mentor in the African American Cultural Resource Center, Collegiate 100 Honorary Member, and Sigma Sigma Honorary Member, said:

“Before this trip, I was naive and gullible to things around me and in the world. This trip allowed me to exercise critical thinking to its fullest extent, and I saw how skewed social media made conflicts in Israel and Palestine look. Going there, seeing what was happening first hand, allowed me to better grasp the conflict.” 

In addition to our conversations with locals, we accompanied students to many significant sites. We walked around Tel Aviv and enjoyed its vibrant nightlife. In Jerusalem, we visited the Old City and Yad Vashem. Exploring sites related to the birth of Christianity, we traced the footsteps of Jesus through Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee. We also challenged our political perspectives in the West Bank, where we had the opportunity to meet a representative from the PA Foreign Affairs Office and a small business owner in Taybeh, a Palestinian village. We also visited Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city. 

While important, these experiences can also elicit a range of emotions for students. Throughout the trip, we led multiple processing sessions to provide them with support as they navigated these complexities and absorbed the new information.

When we finally returned to Cincinnati, it became evident that the trip had a profound impact on our students’ perspectives. They felt empowered and prepared to engage in difficult conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

As Anijah Slaughter ‘24, Director of Gender Based Violence Prevention of Student Government, said:

“Walking into this trip, I had no clue how much I would learn not only about Israel and Judaism, but myself as well. The trip fostered an environment of introspection while emphasizing the importance of perspective as we explored the complexities of conflict and conflict resolution.”

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this entire trip is that the students not only had a great time but also developed a deep affection for the Israeli spirit. They were enthusiastic about learning Hebrew and kept asking Israelis to teach them the language. In previous years, participants who attended the trip returned to campus and became more engaged in Hillel activities. They continued to share pictures from their experience long after the trip had ended. I hope that the same holds true for these 20 individuals when we all return this fall.