A group of 40 U.S. college students representing more than 30 campuses began a three-week immersion program this week to supplement the experiences they had touring Israel on free Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

The return of the tour alumni to the Holy Land – several stayed in the country after finishing their Birthright trips last week – marked the dawn of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation’s third-annual IsraeLinks initiative. The itinerary includes a full week in the northern mountain city of Safed – historically seen as the birthplace of post-medieval Jewish mysticism – a week at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jersualem and a week of tours and special service projects in the country’s midsection and south.

Rabbi Yossi Witkes, director of Chabad on Campus’ immersion programming, described the program as giving young adults the chance to “dig beneath the surface in a way that cannot be done on a whirlwind 10-day tour.”

“I think it is a much more in-depth experience than Birthright,” echoed Stuart Loiran, a Harvard Law School student who arrived in the country on Monday after having previously taken part in a Birthright trip in the winter of 2007. “We really delve into what we’re learning more. I like the pace much better: It’s not as rushed, and you have more time to let things sink in.”

Throughout the students’ time in Israel, they will be accompanied by Yossi and Chaya Witkes, and by campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Zalman and Yehudis Bluming, who serve Duke University and North Carolina’s research triangle, and Rabbi Bentzion and Chani Shemtov, who serve the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The strength of this program is the personalized attention given to each participant,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “Our alumni consistently rank the high staff-to-student ratio as conducive to an increased level of comfort and approachability to the material.”

Each day will be filled with tours and hikes pinned to material taught in classes and discussions ranging from the Torah and Talmud to modern applications of Jewish law. One session will focus on medical ethics as seen through the lens of Jewish tradition.

“One of the amazing things about being in Israel is how Judaism and Jewish history connect with places,” said Witkes. “When you’re here, you are walking in the footsteps of our forefathers.”

Alumni of past IsraeLinks programs stressed the immersive nature of combining interactions with the land and learning about its history.

“It is so special here!” said Sheryl Hoffman, who participated in the inaugural IsraeLinks session as a sophomore at the University of Albany in 2007. “I love it. I love the learning, the people, the land, the staff and everything.”

One week features tours of Israel’s northern regions and classes at Ascent of Safed, a Chabad House and hostel in the birthplace of post-medieval Jewish mysticism.
One week features tours of Israel’s northern regions and classes at Ascent of Safed, a Chabad House and hostel in the birthplace of post-medieval Jewish mysticism.

Program Expands

Ascent of Safed, a Chabad House and hostel, is hosting the first week, providing its guests with a live concert on Saturday night. Activities next week will likely include a day in the war-torn community of Sderot, where students will volunteer at an afterschool program and meet with residents and members of the local government.

Rabbi Mordechai Siev, director of English programming at Ascent, had nothing but praise for the program and the students it attracts.

“Overall, it has been a very successful program,” said Siev. “Each year, it just keeps getting better.”

Speaking from the airport just before boarding her flight to Israel, Chani Shemtov emphasized that “just being in Israel is very special. Having the chance to explore the country and to enjoy being there for a few weeks is going to be amazing for everyone.

“Still, we have put a lot of effort and research into a curriculum that will enhance that experience and deepen the bond students already feel with the country,” she added.

The first group of 40 students is known as the Rackow Scholars in honor of the Rackow Family of New York, which provided a substantial gift to the program. And in a first for the program, another group of 40 students will arrive later this month for a second three-week session. A blog of their experiences can be found at IsraeLinks.org.

Both rosters include many students who have been involved in the Sinai Scholars Society, a partnership between Chabad on Campus and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute that allows undergraduates to explore their heritage through an intensive academic curriculum at their local Chabad House, and other campus activities. Organizers noted that a side-benefit of IsraeLinks is the fostering of leadership skills among the students.

“Students come back with a great deal of strength and a lot of excitement,” said Witkes. “They come back as real leaders.”