This past January, with the support of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Harvard Hillel was able to extend its 10-day Birthright trip for a group of students with a four-day "Trekstension." Modeled on the Harvard College Israel Trek—in which our Israeli Harvard students share their country with Harvard undergraduate leaders—the Trekstension, with its rich itinerary and Israeli student leadership, provides a deep dive into Israeli society and geopolitics, building on the experience of the Birthright trip and expanding participants' understanding of what it means to be Jewish and Israeli.
Scroll down to go on a "virtual" Trekstension and explore the places, people, and concepts that Harvard students were able to experience during the extension of their Birthright trip.
"The Trekstension was an extremely engaging, formative experience that I think is essential to anyone's understanding of both the geopolitical situation in Israel and the domestic, democratic challenges Israel faces. It helped expose me to different perspectives that would be difficult to gain in any other way. The combination of learning about history, combined with narratives from politicians, activists, and average people, helped me get a fuller picture of the multiple directions that each issue takes."
—Isabel Slavinsky '20
|Jerusalem-based journalist Elhanan Miller provided an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process in the very hotel where one of the rounds of peace talks between Bibi and Abbas took place.|
"On the Trekstension, our students had the incredible opportunity to build on the information they learned on the Birthright trip from experts in the field. They took full advantage of engaging with our speakers and expressed so much appreciation for having unique exposure from Israelis and Palestinians on all sides of the issues. I felt privileged to help guide the students through their experience, while also asking my own questions and growing in my role as a Jewish and Israel educator."
"Every time we spoke with someone, I could feel my perspective expanding. And as I struggled with complex issues, it was clear to me that, as a Jewish person, Israel is extremely personal for me; in some ways, Israel's problems feel more personal for me than the U.S.'s. Israel isn't just another country to me, and it was by grappling with Israel's hard questions that I fully understood that."
—Michael Jasper '20
At the Tent of Nations, the group learned about non-violent education programs for youth that work towards a peaceful future for all living in the region. They continued the day hearing about economic development in the West Bank, the issues of borders, and perspectives on what a future solution might look like.
The group had the opportunity to tour the Supreme Court and meet Supreme Court Justice Daphna Barak Erez, who helped them understand the relationship between Judaism and the state from a legal perspective.
"Over the course of the extension, I saw my students begin to realize that they, as American Jews, have an integral role to play in Israel's landscape—and that the more they seek information about what that landscape looks like, from as many perspectives as possible, the more they'll be able to play an active role in it. Since we've returned to Cambridge, I've already seen my Trekstension students searching for opportunities to engage with Israel, both inside the classroom and out, and they have all inquired about returning to Israel this summer."
—Lauren Cohen Fisher
Harvard Hillel IACT Israel & Campus Engagement Coordinator
"Speaking to Palestinian community leaders and a variety of Israeli leaders has exposed me to the multitude of narratives that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Visiting Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements in the West Bank has had a profound impact on how I view political conflict and understand the concept of identity. This extension has motivated me to get involved in Israel-related activities on campus, and I want to bring the model of dialogue and open-mindedness that we used during the Trekstension to my community as we face the divisive political crisis in America."
—Emma Ling '20
The group finished discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over dinner with Tal Becker. Next, they explored the relationship between Judaism and democracy in Israel by hearing from Harvard alumna Laura Wharton and the renowned scholar Tomer Persico.
"The extension to Birthright provided an opportunity to engage more deeply with many of the topics touched on only briefly during the 10-day trip. As planners of the extension, we thought it would be interesting to scratch past the surface on some of the more pressing issues in Israeli society, and specifically, Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was, we hope, a unique opportunity to engage with Israel on a level not otherwise easily available."
—Gal Kopelwitz '17
Israeli Harvard Student and Trekstension Leader
"As a student who has led Birthright groups as well as the Harvard College Israel Trek, I can say confidently that the Harvard Birthright 'Trekstension' that was offered this year for the first time had the best of both worlds. Unlike groups on Trek (who come from many faiths and backgrounds), this group of Birthright students was ready to tackle issues in Israeli society head-on: they were curious, well-informed, and deeply caring.
The ability to see more of Israel (and the West Bank), coupled with a keen eye and a heart that was already tuned in, gave our participants more knowledge and information about the Jewish state than Trek participants leave with, but also, in some respects, more than the average Israeli has.
I have no doubt in my mind that the extension participants will go on to lead ever more informed conversations about Israel, understand much more of its underlying magic and complexity, and will either revisit or have a deep care for the state in future years."
—Limor Gultchin '17
Israeli Harvard Student and Trekstension Leader
Touring Efrat with Yesha Council Spokesperson Bob Lang, who provided the group with a historical overview of Jewish presence in Judea-Samaria/the West Bank.
After taking a tour of an ultra Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Trekstension group visited a women's dress share project and then sat down with community leaders for a Q&A about how ultra Orthodox Judaism relates to other sects of Judaism and the state.
The Harvard Hillel Birthright Trekstension was made possible through the support of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
The next Harvard Hillel Birthright trip is May 14–21, 2017. The spring Trekstension will take place May 21–25. For more information about Harvard Hillel's Birthright trip, please visit this page.
For more information about the Harvard Hillel Birthright Trekstension, please contact Lauren Cohen Fisher, Harvard Hillel IACT Israel & Campus Engagement Coordinator.