In Colorado, Campus Activists are Made in High School

ISTSome Israel advocates are born when they go on their first trip to Israel on a college Birthright trip or see their first anti-Israel campaign on campus. Many students who grow up in Colorado, however, begin to develop the skills and passion necessary to advocate for Israel on campus while they still are in high school.

For the past 40 years, the Colorado Israel Study Tour (IST), sponsored by the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, CAJE, local synagogues and private donors, has offered teens a popular community-based trip. On average, IST brings 58 rising high school seniors from all Jewish backgrounds on a five-week study trip to Poland and Israel.

Following a series of mandatory preparation courses discussing Jewish history, ethics and traditions, genocide awareness and Israel facts, students travel to Poland for four days, visiting concentration camps and learning about European Jewish history, and then to Israel to live with Israeli teens their own age in the Ramat HaNegev region and tour the country for four weeks.

“Starting in Poland and seeing the camps made being in Israel so much more incredible because it made me realize how amazing it truly is,” said Jana Berkowitz, a student at the University of Florida who participated in IST the summer of 2011, “I remember getting off the plane and going straight to the Tel Aviv beach and literally kissing the ground; we were so happy to be there!”

“Before I went to Israel it was just another country in the Middle East,” said Ilyssa Simon, a student at Bradley University who participated in IST in 2011. “I knew that Israel was important and that I should care about it but I never really thought about it. I had no connection to Israel and then I went on IST and I understood Israel and the significance about the country. After IST, Israel felt like home.”

IST has inspired over 2,400 students since 1972 to become advocates on college campuses for their Jewish heritage and homeland. “IST plants the seeds of Jewish commitment so that our teens will become the next generation of Jewish leaders and volunteers,” said IST Director Amelia Laderosa. “IST creates a bond between the student and the land of Israel. Staff members are committed to providing students with the tools that are necessary to be an advocate for Israel… connections to the Hillel on campuses across the US, information and resources for gap year programming in Israel and the necessary resources for students as issues around Israel advocacy arise. Through partnerships with organizations such as StandWithUs, Seeking Common Ground, the David Project and other Israel-focused organizations, IST staff can provide students with many points of entry for Israel advocacy.”

“My mom went on IST when she was in high school, and my sister went two years before I did,” said Melissa Dworkin, a student at American University (AU) who participated in the 2011 trip, “IST had become a prominent part of our community and family and a sort-of rite of passage.”

Dworkin is a member of AU Students for Israel as well as Hillel and the Jewish Student Association. Upon returning from her IST trip, Dworkin began a Colorado initiative called “To Israel with Love,” that sends care packages to Israeli soldiers. “My experiences on IST absolutely influenced my activism on campus,” Dworkin said, “I was able to develop my own love for Israel first hand and experience parts of Israel that simply can’t be taught. When I hear in the news about situations in Israel, I think of the people I know firsthand who are impacted by this news.

Josh Samet, the campus director of the Merage & Allon Hillel Center at the University of Denver, participated in an IST trip in 1990, attended college at the University of Arizona and has staffed IST trips in the summers of 2011 and 2012. “The experience was incredible,” he said, “and at the age of 17 was one that made a strong impact on my connection with Israel community and Judaism.”

“IST definitely helped me understand how crucial it was to be an advocate of Israel on my college campus,” said University of Michigan student Simon Kaufman. “It taught me how important it is that people understand the facts about Israel and not the myths that are too often portrayed in the media.

“I went on IST in the summer of 2011. My older brother also did it in 2009 I believe and my mom also did it,” Kaufman continued. “I always knew I wanted to do it.”

Today, Kaufman serves on the First Year Student’s of Hillel Advisory Board that sponsors a number of pro-Israel groups and programs on campus.

Even though many participants may not realize it, IST lays a careful foundation that guides young adults to campus activism. The relationships they make and the experiences they share strengthen the leadership and advocacy roles that many of them take on when they settle in on their college campuses all over the United States.

“As a confirmation gift my temple gave me $2,000 towards the trip,” said Sara Kregstein, a student at the University of Denver whose IST trip also affected her political views in regards to how American policies and the recent election will affect Israel, “From my experience of going to Poland and then Israel, I really saw the importance of having a Jewish state and having people to protect it. IST helped me to see that Israel is my second home and that since I am not physically defending it through IDF service, the next best thing I can do is stand up for Israel where I am and be an Israel advocate.”