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Student Leads and Learns in Israel

Audrey Novak balances on rocks at the Sea of GalileeAs a devout Catholic and an avid traveler, Audrey Novak always had the Holy Land on her list of dream travel destinations. While majoring in Philosophy, International Studies and International Development, she cultivated a deeper interest in the State of Israel after learning about the many conflicting perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it comes to foreign policy.

“I tried to stay away from committing myself too strongly to either side on the subject of Palestine and Israel – I knew it was controversial, and I knew most people, if they had feelings on it, held on to those views very deeply,” Novak said. “I felt that I knew too little about the situation from merely reading American news articles to have an informed opinion.”

To remedy this, Novak decided that she needed to experience Israel for herself. The opportunity presented itself in a newsletter sent out by the Center for International Studies. In that email, she learned about the Jewish National Fund’s Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission.

To encourage constructive dialogue across American college campuses, the trip sponsors student leaders to visit Israel. While there, they learn about its culture and politics as well as its relationships with other Middle Eastern countries. After applying and going through the interview process, Novak was selected for the 10-day trip spanning Dec. 27-Jan. 7.

“When I got the email that I had been selected, I was ecstatic,” Novak said. “The trip seemed so far away until I was actually in flight to New York, so I didn’t really have time to imagine what it would be like. Once I landed in Israel and we received a printed copy of our itinerary, I began to look forward to Jerusalem and traveling to the Syrian border.”

Finding Similarities through Diversity

Audrey Novak, in a white robe surrounded by other students from her group also dressed in white robes, stands in the Jordan River to be baptized.

For Novak, one of the most striking characteristics of Israel is the diversity of its people. In Northern Israel, she dined with a family of the Druze religion, a minority she learned about for the first time. In the South, they met an Ethiopian community who practiced Judaism in isolation for a millennium. The students traveled to the Negev, where they learned about the Bedouin culture.

“I was struck by the fusion of so many cultures in Israel,” Novak said. “In this way, Israel reminded me of America; it was a nation of immigrants, many of whom emigrated from Middle Eastern nations when the environment at home became hostile to Judaism.”

Audrey Novak in front of the Dome of the Rock.

One of Novak’s favorite memories from the trip reflected this rich diversity. When visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, the group went to see the Via Dolorosa, the path Christ took to the Crucifixion. While the group was still in the Muslim Quarter, the tour guide stopped to explain the Stations of the Cross that mark the route.

“We had just come from the Temple Mount, and suddenly the Muslim call to prayer echoed through loud speakers all around us,” Novak said. “It was such a strange experience to witness firsthand the peaceful coexistence of so many religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – in a place that has been marred by so much violence but still retains a sacred, supernatural character.”

Giving Context to the Conflict

Audrey Novak prays at the Wailing Wall.

By learning about the two-state solution and the obstacles that stand in the way of such an agreement, Novak gained the insight into Israel that she always wanted. In addition, she learned about the history of Israel over the past century. Not only did this context help her better understand the conflicting perspectives she had always learned about, it also helped her understand how so many others end up with misconceptions about a country in which she herself saw so many different backgrounds coexist.

“In America, it’s hard to understand the full story of Israel and the Middle East,” she said. “Politics there is SO complicated, and people don’t have time to read a 45-page article on their daily news app. So reporters have to simplify, and in doing so, details (and thus threads in a complex story) are inevitably left out.”

Continuing the Journey After the Trip

A senior, Novak plans to graduate in December 2019. While she is still unsure of her future plans, she does know that she wants to continue to pursue her interest in international issues. The trip to Israel left her well prepared for such potential roles.

“I developed a greater capacity to step out of my own perspectives and unrealized prejudices and truly try to understand the life of another person,” Novak said. “I came away with a greater reverence for personal relationships in life and in diplomacy. Two groups of people can hold on to a deep hatred for each other, but individuals from each can and do cross these divides to establish friendships.”

Story by Katie Fleming