Trip to Israel is 10-day history lesson

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UNO students say the trip, sponsored by the Schwalb Center, helped them see the Holy Land in a whole new light.

For six UNO students this summer, their classroom was the Dead Sea.

It was Galilee.

It was the dinner table of a man in a secretive religion.

It was the Wailing Wall.

It was a bank of the Jordan River.

It was a bus that looped them around the Holy Land.

It was all of Israel.

“It is such a blur,” says Kasey Davis, a religious studies major. “But you have to go back through the pictures to see what you did and then you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We were there.'”

Says Joe Willms, who’s majoring in international studies and religion: “I learned more about the Jewish people in ten days than I had in my entire life, so that’s insane.”

“Yes,” says Kasey. “You really see Israel in a new light.”

The summer course – ten days in May – was designed for students like Kasey and Joe who are interested in international studies or religious studies or history. Kasey and Joe and two other students who took the trip have gathered this day to talk about their trip.

And to thank the donors who made it possible.

The students sit at a long table in the Natan & Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, which is in the Arts & Sciences Hall at UNO. The trip was sponsored by the Schwalb Center and paid for through private support from some local people: Tom Vann, Nelson Gordman, Jerry Gordman, Mort Zuber and Tammy Abramowitz. The dean added an additional $500 per student from the Arts and Sciences Fund for Excellence.

Kyle Bacus, a master’s student in Israeli history, explains that for his project for the course, he looked at how the military experience of the Druze people helps integrate them into society.

On day six, following a tasty lunch made by a Christian Arab family and a tour of Warren Buffett’s Tefen Industrial Park, Kyle and the group traveled to a Druze village in western Galilee and ate dinner in a Druze home. They listened as that Druze man explained his religion and culture.

“That was really eye-opening,” Kyle says. “It was an experience. It’s a secretive religion. It’s not open for people to come and convert. They believe in reincarnation and that there’s only a set number of people born into that religion.

“Quite frankly, you just can’t read about that – and you can’t find that in Nebraska.”

Jennifer Lassley, a master’s student in ancient history, is writing her master’s thesis on ancient Judea and the women of King Herod’s court. It’s a piece, she says, that combines religious studies with ancient women’s studies.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to my studies in that I was able to go see the architecture of Herod, up close and personal,” she says. “I got to touch it with my hands. It will make my thesis and my future career as a historian that much more significant.”

Without that financial support, she says, she wouldn’t have been able to go.

“I’d really like to express my gratitude to all the private donors and the Schwalb Center for allowing me to take this amazing trip,” she says. “I am just so deeply grateful.”

Several people from the community also took the trip, which was led by Dr. Moshe Gershovich, director of the Schwalb Center.

The trip aligned with the main goal of center, which, according to its web page, “is to expand knowledge about Judaism and Israel, both on university campus and in the broader Nebraska community, and we seek to promote and facilitate collaborative scholarship (teaching and research) with academic institutions in Israel.”

On day eight, the group visited the Bethsaida archaeological site that’s being excavated by a UNO-led consortium of universities. The group listened to lectures at the site, which was rediscovered in 1987 by Dr. Rami Arav, professor of religion and philosophy at UNO.

Also that day, the group toured the Jesus’ Boat Museum and took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

On Day 10, they visited the Dead Sea region and Masada and toured Jerusalem’s Old City. That night, they dined with a special lecturer – Salam Fayyad, the former prime minister of Palestine.

“That was amazing,” Joe says. “The way he enlightened us about their plight and about what’s going on there, about how he actually did not get re-elected and problems with that, and problems with the Palestinian people due to poverty and they want direct results, immediate results, and someone like him who is going to promise a future for them over time – that was pretty amazing.”

Says Kyle: “And the prime minister’s message is ‘We should be working together with the Israelis.’ It’s non-violent. It wasn’t that ‘Violence is the only way.’  It’s that ‘If we work together, and we build up infrastructure, we can both live in peace.'”

On the final day, the UNO group had one final amazing experience:

As the tour bus was taking them back to the airport, they looked to the right and saw the Pope’s helicopter flying by. And then, at the same time, they looked to their left and saw the bullet-proof cars carrying the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the country’s president, Shimon Peres, driving by.

“It was like a really quick moment where everyone was freaking out,” Jennifer says. “It was kind of funny, and it was surreal, almost.”

The students all smile at the memory.

Says Joe: “We were a part of history.”

And Israel, they agree, was a classroom they’ll never forget.

Global Engagement is one of the priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska, now in its final year. Since the campaign began in 2005, $6 million has been raised for the university’s global engagement efforts. If you would like to help students like those at UNO who went to Israel, please consider giving online or contact the foundation at 800-432-3216.

The Schwalb Center hopes to sponsor another class in Israel in 2016, if it’s deemed safe for travel there. UNO has many other wonderful study abroad student experiences planned for students, including a trip to Morocco next spring for students to study Jewish culture and history.

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