Inside Studying Abroad in Israel: Part One

The conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated rapidly over the course of the past month. A group of American students studying abroad experienced the conflict first hand. We learn more about their study abroad trip to Israel and the events leading up to the University’s decision to evacuate the students.

Message from the Editor in Chief:

This article by Jackie Knowles, ISV Magazine Correspondent, is focused on the experiences of eight American students who were affected by conflict while studying abroad in Israel. This article is meant to summarize what kind of study abroad experience Michigan State University offers in Israel, the moments leading up to the university deciding to evacuate the students, and the process the university administration underwent to ensure the safety of its students. This article is meant to provide insight into how a study abroad experience can turn at any minute and how one must prepare for the unexpected.

 We hope each day for peace and that some kind of resolution will be found between Israel and Palestine. We are heart broken over all the innocent lives lost on both sides over the course of the past century.  International Student Voice Magazine is here to serve as your advocate. If you would like to share your constructive thoughts and opinions regarding the current conflict between Israel and Palestine please email me at ccircosta@internationalstudentvoice.org

Image courtesy of vox.com
Image courtesy of vox.com

If we were to look beyond the current, roiling tension and turmoil in the Middle East, and ignore what we continue to hear on the news, Israel can be an appealing and intriguing destination situated on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, sharing land borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Palestinian territories (including the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Israel can be a destination for international students who want a unique experience while taking advantage of education in areas such as: history, religion, language and culture, society or politics.

Over the years, Kenneth Waltzer, Director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, in cooperation with the Office of Study Abroad at the university, created and built the Jewish Studies Program in Israel at Rothberg International School of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Hebrew University is one of the leading universities in the world and its Rothberg School works with Michigan State University to customize an Israel-focused program that works well with our initiative at MSU,” Professor Waltzer explained. “We are interested in the two modern post-Holocaust centers of global Jewry: North America and Israel.”

To date, more than 100 MSU students have studied in Israel. Most of them have gone through the Jewish Studies Program in Israel, including the most recent group of participants who went through  some incredibly, powerful experiences which are recounted below.

The Study Abroad Experience and Evacuation 

On Wednesday, July 2, 2014, eight eager students from Michigan State University assembled in Israel for a truly unique study abroad experience sponsored by the University’s Jewish Studies Program and run through the MSU Office of Study Abroad.

Over the course of their first weekend in Israel, and before courses began, the MSU Spartans were introduced to Israeli family-life and were welcomed with genuine smiles, warm hearts and open arms from host families in Nahalal from the Galilee region of Israel. For the duration of their weekend stay, students were invited to join the community in various activities, including: a Sabbath dinner, prayer service, and local campfire as well as singing, dancing and lots of laughing! Although the cross-cultural integration to Israeli family-life was short-lived, the impact on the students was nothing short of immense, and long lasting.

 Following an amazing weekend, the eight students embarked on their educational journey of life and culture in the city of Jerusalem, whether they were ready or not. As participants of the Jewish Studies Program, the Spartans were required to complete two academic courses (4 credits each) during a 4.5-week intensive summer stint at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One course was a lecture class taught by a local professor from Rothberg International School, while the second course focused on experiential-learning throughout the city of Jerusalem – led by accompanying MSU faculty-member and Professor of Jewish and Muslim Studies, Marc Bernstein, who is highly-educated in the field and heavily experienced in the country.

The experiential-learning course was designed to focus on the old city of Jerusalem, highlighting history and concentration of Jewish-Muslim-Christian sites, along with intercultural interactions with political leaders and interdenominational religious figures of The Land of Milk and Honey.  But, in the wake of the bitter mayhem related to the recent kidnappings and murders, including: demonstrations, stone throwing, riots and the seemingly, never-ending airstrikes drastic revisions were made to the curriculum to ensure the students’ safety.

“We have to approach student study abroad programs in Israel with caution and we always have exigency plans in place,” declared Professor Bernstein.

On account of security and sensitivity issues, the assemblies with local leading figures were cancelled and many neighborhoods in the old city had to be avoided due to missile attack threats. Instead, the Spartans strategically broadened their educational excursions across the country, to the City of David (south of the old city) as well as the Jewish Quarter to the north.

 As a result of recent years of war and conflict, as well as the location of the Mount Scopus campus on the outskirts of Jerusalem surrounded by large Arab populations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been well-equipped for the security of its students, including: walled and gated perimeters of the dorms and campus, barbed-wire fencing, security checkpoint entrances with metal detectors, guards and security cameras all over the place. More importantly, like that of modern houses and buildings in Israel, the dorms had a reinforced concrete safe room, called a “mamad,” to provide protection during airstrikes. Upon arrival to Israel, the students were well coached in what they needed to do in case the sirens were to go off. In fact, the sirens went off twice while the Spartans were in Jerusalem. Both times, they were in their suites at the dorms, so they took cover in the reinforced room where they waited until they received notification that it was safe to come out. 

In the unlikely event that the sirens were to sound while the students were away from campus, the city of Jerusalem also has its own walled and gated perimeter with security cameras that are dispersed throughout the city as well as the entire state of Israel. Moreover, the city of Jerusalem is well protected by bomb shelters and the Iron Dome, a technology that has been used to detect and intercept incoming missiles, thanks to the help of U.S. dollars. Although the strikes were scary and nerve-wracking (as one would expect), Professor Bernstein reassured the students.

“Statistically, [they were] at far greater risk crossing the street than by any sort of missile attack,” Professor Bernstein explained.

Despite the airstrikes, the Spartans, like the rest of the Israeli people, continued with their daily routine and quickly adapted to the situation.  People resumed with work, kids carried on with summer camps, and the students went on with their classes. 

Similarly, Michigan State also takes security very seriously; so, as the news spread about continued violence and missile attacks from Israel and the Gaza Strip, the university’s Risk & Security Assessment Committee initiated a meeting with Professor Waltzer and communicated with Professor Bernstein to gauge the risk of its students. Before making any rash decisions about how to proceed with the program during the uprising unrest in Israel, the committee decided to wait a couple of days to see if the situation would escalate, or cease.

“I thought students were safe in Jerusalem where no rockets were falling,” Professor Waltzer recalled. “I was in contact with Hebrew U and Rothberg School and they thought students were safe and reported almost none were leaving.  I shared my political and geographic as well as experiential knowledge with the committee.  The committee was, naturally, more worried. These are not faculty, not regional specialists, mostly unknowing about the geography and I tried to explain.  I actually persuaded the committee the students were safe.”

But, after a failed ceasefire attempt between Israel and Hamas, the committee met again.

“[They] worried what would happen if a change in the situation required exit and the students couldn’t get out through Ben Gurion. The committee convinced itself against my advice and Marc Bernstein’s advice that it was better to leave while it was possible than to wait,” Professor Waltzer explained.

Subsequently, at the recommendation of the Risk & Management Security Committee, June Youatt, MSU Provost, made the official decision to terminate the program and immediately evacuate the students with the assistance of Drum Cussac, a global risk management consultancy with which the university had contacted. Drum Cussac purchased new airline tickets for the students and arranged for transfers to the aiport on July 17. Students were told if despite the evacuation they decided to stay, they would be required to sign a form waiving the responsibility of the university. Furthermore, they were told they would not be able to continue their coursework in either of the two courses and that they could not remain in their dorm rooms. Professor Bernstein was instructed that he would not be permitted to have any contact with the students following the termination of the program.  The university decided to transport the students to the airport six hours in advance of their flight. As a result of this decision, taken against the advice of the Program Director, who noted that the airport was the one place Hamas explicitly targeted, as they approached the airport outskirts, the sirens went off and the students were forced to exit the vehicle and take cover at the side of the road where they were able to witness the interception of three missiles overhead. The university was anxious to get the students to the airport. Nancy Chapman, mother of Ross Joseph-Samuel Chapman, a 19-year-old MSU sophomore with focused studies in International Relations and Comparative Cultures, highlighted the irony of the situation:

“The only time my son felt in danger was when they were being evacuated and on the way to the airport in Tel Aviv. Rockets flew right overhead and they all had to get out of the van as the sirens sounded.” 

Upon arrival to TLV, Ross Chapman caught a flight to mainland Europe to do some traveling before returning home, while the other seven students boarded a nonstop, red-eye flight to Newark on Thursday, July 17. The original date of completion for the Jewish Studies Program in Israel was July 31, 2014; it was cut short by two-weeks.

After their return to the States, the Jewish Studies Program’s students continued the lecture’s reading and written assignments, remotely; and, had been given a final writing assignment, highlighting the current war and their experiences of it in Israel, for the on-site learning course led by Marc Bernstein. Full-credit has been awarded to the students for their completed work, and Professor Waltzer leaves us with his final remarks:

“In pulling the program, MSU [has been] careful to proclaim that the program is merely suspended for a time and we will be going back […] It is a great experience for students, an important introduction to Israel and the region, and we hope to educate many students who will, based on their learning, contribute to the development and the creation of peace and improved understanding in the region.” 

Silver Linings 

To be, or not to be?

…That is the disputed question concerning whether or not it was necessary to pull the program and evacuate the students.

“I supported the University’s decision,” responds David, father to Michigan State University’s Junior, Nate Strauss. “The students’ safety is the number one priority. The University had great foresight as to what ‘could’ happen.”

Likewise, Alicia and Steve, the parents of Mitchell Bild, a 19-year old sophomore at Michigan State in James Madison College who is majoring in Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy and specializing in Political Economy with a Business Cognate, harmonize, “We understood how disappointed our son was about having his time in Israel cut short, but we were thrilled at the decision made and with the arrangements provided.”

On the other hand, Nancy Chapman, a parent who has remained supportive of her son’s study abroad trip to Israel from the get-go said, “My son and I were so disappointed that MSU made the decision to evacuate the students. We do understand their concern. But my son insists he never felt in danger while in Jerusalem.”

Program Director, Professor Marc Bernstein, who implemented the evacuation order, understands the university’s decision but had reservations about the process.

“I would hope that future decisions such as this one would rely on the recommendations of the security and insurance company (DRUM) hired by the university, which had concluded that the students did not need to be evacuated at [that] point and only pointed out that [had] the situation escalate[d] further it may [have] become more difficult to find seats on flights,” voiced Professor Bernstein.

The students’ wellbeing was always the top priority for the parents, the university and especially Professor Bernstein, who succeeded in providing positive, learning experiences while protecting them from threats. The students, certainly, were in good hands with Professor Bernstein and I strongly believe that he should be applauded for his courageous and strategic leadership of his Spartans. Like a true soldier of Sparta, he proved to be flexible and ready to respond at a moment’s notice, keeping his troop of young adults calm and out of war zones.  But, yet, he humbly declared:

“This was a wonderful group of warm, inquisitive, and industrious students and what we [were] able to accomplish within the first two and a half weeks of the program—even given the limitations of the security situation— is quite remarkable […] It definitely was a learning experience and sensitized [the students] to what life is like for Israelis living under a threat of attack from outside.”

Steve and Alicia Bild sing their praises of the Jewish Studies Program despite the worrisome situation their son experienced:

“The university’s international program is well designed and well informed […] the communication from the university international travel department as well as the professor himself were nothing short of fantastic […] We have complete confidence and would enroll our son again if the opportunity arose. Our son describes being changed by his experiences.  He seems to be more in touch with specific historical and political pieces influencing his own heritage as a Jewish person […] This brief experience made him quite a bit more self-reliant, but additionally, made him even more aware of his spot in the world.  He seems to have been enhanced by a life experience in addition to book learning.”

David Strauss concurs, “For the students, being in the middle of an international conflict was a great learning experience. It took [my son] a few days to ‘re-adapt’ to being home [as] the trip ended so quickly he didn’t have time to process it all.” Although Mr. Strauss preferred that the students be evacuated than to continue with the program, he explains, “I would encourage [other parents] to send their student [to Israel], but know that plans can always change very quickly.”

Nancy Chapman concluded, “I hope this summer does not deter any parent from encouraging their student to study abroad in Israel. They would be missing out on a wonderful trip. What an opportunity this was for my son to experience Israel and all of its people. You cannot learn this in a classroom…[the students have] to experience it.”

Although the doors of the MSU Jewish Studies Program in Israel were forced to close two weeks early for Mitchell Bild, Ross Chapman, Nate Strauss and their five other peers, the eight Spartans held their heads high and walked away with experiences that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. There is no doubt that the situations they faced in Israel have made them stronger than ever before. Hopefully, as Professor Waltzer stated, the closing of the doors to Israel will only be temporary for MSU and, that with time, the unrest will subside and peace will prevail. Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, the doors to Israel will open once again for the return of the Spartans.

[quote]“We all pray for peace; and hope that the current conflict will end soon; and, [the] loss of life will be minimized.”- Marc S. Bernstein Michigan State University On-site Faculty Director of Jewish Studies Program in Israel[/quote]

[typography font=”Lobster” size=”16″ size_format=”px”]Click here: Listen to the ISV Show-ISV Ambassador and Correspondent Jackie Knowles speaks with Marc Bernstein, Professor of Jewish and Muslim Studies at Michigan State University. [/typography]

ISV show (3) international student voice magazine

Look for part two of Inside Studying Abroad in Israel as ISV Magazine Correspondent, Jackie Knowles speaks with MSU students who were evacuated during their study abroad in Israel.

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