When more than 30 students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign signed up for a free trip to Israel sponsored by Taglit-birthright israel and provided by Mayanot, they didn’t expect to arrive in a country at war. But while a couple of students decided to leave the trip at the last minute, the group largely stayed intact and followed Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Center for Jewish Student Life serving the Illinois school, to the Holy Land.

Harrison Leibow was among those who landed in Israel last Wednesday, his first time ever. Reached on Monday as his host country stepped up its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, the student said that he was having the time of his life.

“I’m enjoying being in a place where someone you don’t know says Shabbat Shalom to you,” he said.

Because of the danger from Palestinian rocket attacks, the group has stayed away from the south, but, according to Leibow, it was impossible to ignore Operation Cast Lead, which has claimed the lives of five Israeli soldiers. The news of the death of Staff Sgt. Dvir Emanueloff, who became the first military fatality of the war during the opening hours of Israel’s ground invasion, hit Leibow particularly hard.

Monday morning, “we were at the Western Wall,” he related. The first part of the day was “joyous.”

But then Tiechtel, who was at Emanueloff’s funeral the night before, took the students to see the fallen soldier’s resting place at the military cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.

“Seeing the grave was really tough to look at,” said Leibow, who at 20 years old is just two years younger than Emanueloff. “It was fresh: no tombstone, just dirt.”

Tiechtel talked to the group about the sacrifice the soldier made for his country and the Jewish people.

The news of Israeli casualties in the Gaza Strip has struck both citizens and visitors particularly hard. (Photo: Elad Nehorai)
The news of Israeli casualties in the Gaza Strip has struck both citizens and visitors particularly hard. (Photo: Elad Nehorai)

Noting the speeches said at the soldiers funeral, Tiechtel told the students that “Dvir was always positive.

“He was amazing,” added the rabbi. “He died saving a fellow soldier’s life.”

A Strong Message

For his part, Tiechtel said that by traveling to Israel, the students were “sending a very strong message.”

The importance of strengthening the country’s citizens – especially during wartime – has been a frequent topic of conversation, said the rabbi, who refers students to teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, during Israel’s previous wars.

“In reality, the Land of Israel is the safest place in the world,” said Tiechtel. “As it says in Psalms, ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.’”

Josh Lipkin, a 23-year-old University of Illinois graduate student, said that he felt a little hesitant at joining the trip, but got on the plane anyway.

“I felt that I had to come,” said Lipkin. “I felt that it was very important to be here.”