Mission to Israel enriches Pitt, CMU administrators’ understanding
Understanding IsraelPitt, CMU administration visits Israel with Chabad House

Mission to Israel enriches Pitt, CMU administrators’ understanding

The trip, hosted by Chabad House on Campus-Pittsburgh, was designed so academic leadership could "see Israel for themselves," create collaborations and reconnect with alumni.

Participants on a mission to Israel hike in the Negev. (Photo by Nechama Marcus)
Participants on a mission to Israel hike in the Negev. (Photo by Nechama Marcus)

Administrators from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh joined Rabbi Shmuel and Sara Weinstein of the Chabad House on Campus-Pittsburgh last month for a mission to Israel.

The weeklong May 23-31 trip facilitated multiple objectives, said Shmuel Weinstein, the Chabad House’s director. Specifically, traveling there allowed academic leadership to “see Israel for themselves and not have to rely on what the media says, or even what we say, to meet people in fields or technologies that might lead to some collaboration,” and “to meet their alumni in Israel and be able to talk to them, not just about reconnecting in general but to understand why they would move to Israel after graduating.”

With stops at Masada, Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, and opportunities to engage in daily dialogue with natives, the Birthright-like trip enabled participants to increase their familiarity of both historical and contemporary life abroad, the rabbi said.

“One thing we wanted to make sure was that the administrators could get a nice introduction to Israel and get a basic feel for the people,” added Sara Weinstein.

Participants of the Chabad House on Campus-Pittsburgh trip to Israel walk through the Arab shut. (Photo by Nechama Marcus)
Joining the Weinsteins were Scott Mory, CMU’s vice president for university advancement, Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the board of trustees, and Kenyon Bonner, Pitt’s vice provost and dean of students.

According to the administrators, none of whom had previously visited the Jewish state, the trip was an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally.

Visiting Israel was “an opportunity to step outside of the U.S. and have an experience that would broaden my perspective on the world, immerse myself in a different culture, a different country, a different history, and learn more about a place other than the U.S.,” said Bonner.

“What the trip provided for us was to be what we hope our students are: to always become lifelong learners,” added Humphrey. “Before going, my understanding of Israel was through what I read and heard in the media, what other people had said to me. That was really the sum total of my real understanding of that country, and I don’t think I am much different from most people who haven’t been there,”

For Mory, “seeing the country firsthand it definitely for me increased my own understanding of current issues relating to Israel, and has put me in a position where I can feel more informed about those issues, particularly when I talk to supporters about that topic.”

A participant of the trip at the Western Wall. (Photo by Nechama Marcus)
To soften the culture shock, said Sara Weinstein, “we had several meetings preparing them with what are parts of the picture that can help them deepen their own understanding. We wanted to give them an appreciation for the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and its meaning on a deeper level in the consciousness of Jews over the centuries.”

Earlier dialogue as well as meetings throughout the mission, including a gathering of CMU and Pitt alumni, offered administrators fresh insights.

“Before going I didn’t understand why people would leave this country and move to Israel. Some of that is my ethnocentric belief about my own country and some was a lack of understanding of Israel,” said Humphrey. But upon arriving in “Israel and seeing it and hearing it, how so many are able to live in that country, it became very evident how so many people could live there. It was very impactful for me.”

Similarly illuminating was the opportunity to observe on-the-ground relations between Jews and Arabs.

Regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “there are misconceptions about life in Israel and it was helpful for me to be there and see Palestinians and Israelis working together and communicating together in peace,” said Bonner. “We had some really good conversations in Israel that reflected the complexity of it. What I took from my experience was reinforcing the notion that it is really important to seek to understand and learn about the issues you’re passionate about…I have always said I am a student, and Israel as it related to the conflict encourages me to keep learning.”

Pitt and CMU alumni gather for a group photo. (Photo by Nechama Marcus)
Mory noted that many supporters of CMU have concerns and ideas when it comes to the Middle East. “So even having this brief firsthand glimpse of the situation puts me in a better position to talk about that with them.”

Mory related that on the Friday night of their trip, “we had the great fortune of having a Shabbos dinner on a rooftop in a residence in the Old City of Jerusalem.”

“It was an amazing experience,” recalled Humphrey. “It was Ramadan and in the distance we could hear the chanting of prayers from the [Muslim] community, and in the other direction could see people gathering together for Shabbat prayers and could see people gathering at the Western Wall.

“The juxtaposition of people existing in different ways was truly overpowering,” said Sara Weinstein.

Other activities included a visit to the Achva Tahini and Halva Factory, where the group “saw a community of Israeli Jews and Palestinians and Israeli Arabs working side-by-side and seemingly in good spirits with each other — and like any family, agreeing not to talk politics,” said Mory. The experience “left me hopeful for what might be possible in the future.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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