As they returned home after three weeks of intensive study and touring in the Holy Land, participants of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation’s annual Israelinks program hailed the experience as inspirational.

University of Delaware senior Mike Bogdan, one of 60 college students from universities across the United States who joined Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis for an in-depth exploration of Jewish history, heritage and culture in Israel, said the program answered a lot of questions.

“I had religious relatives that I celebrated the holidays with, and had friends who went to Hebrew school,” Bogdan, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said of his childhood. “But I never really learned anything about [Judaism].

“On Israelinks, I got the Jewish experience I never got as a child,” he continued. “We got to learn what behind it all, what I missed out on growing up.”

Rabbi Yossi Witkes, the program’s director, described the young men and women who took part as a diverse group with a wide range of backgrounds and academic interests. Majors such as Russian Literature, Accounting and Chemistry were represented, but Witkes asserted that all of the students were united by “one common denominator: their interest in studying Judaism seriously.”

Based in Jerusalem, Safed and Tel Aviv, they spent their mornings learning about Jewish tradition and philosophy through a series of lectures, discussions and interactive seminars. In the afternoons, they toured the country’s many holy and historic sites.

Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, director of the Chabad House at Emory University, said that the immersive nature of such trips is a natural draw among participants.

“They get to experience Judaism in a new environment without distractions,” said Lipskier. “There is no better place to do that than in Israel.”

“What Israelinks does is give them a stronger sense of commitment to Jewish practice, pushes them to the next level,” echoed Rabbi Eli Silberstein, director of the Roitman Chabad Center at Cornell University. “They’re no longer observers, but leaders who can inspire others.”

Participating students represented a cross-section of schools, majors and backgrounds.
Participating students represented a cross-section of schools, majors and backgrounds.

Answering the Why?

Zac Chaplin, another University of Delaware student, said that he attended Jewish day school for five years when he was younger, so he came to the program already well-versed in Jewish customs. But though he knew the basics of practice, he never really understood “why we do what we do.”

“A lot of questions got answered,” he said of the trip. “There was always someone around to talk to, to answer a question.”

Acclaimed author and speaker Rabbi Yossi Jacobson served as the scholar-in-residence for this year’s program. He said that spending time with students was refreshingly different.

“It challenged me personally to rediscover my own beliefs and rearticulate what Judaism means to me,” he said.

Reflecting a common sentiment among organizers of the trip, Rabbi Zalman Bluming, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center serving Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that he was inspired from the students’ commitment.

“They’re from the top level of academic accomplishment in their fields,” he mused. “It was a real meeting of minds of such a high caliber and was amazing to see how relevant Judaism is to them.”

Gene Ivanov, a chemistry major at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that he felt complete after the experience.

It added “a whole facet that was missing,” he explained.

Andrew Lux, an accounting major at Ithaca University, agreed.

“It solidified everything I knew before the trip,” he said. “It actualized my thoughts and feelings about Judaism in general and was a springboard to higher things.”