Despite reports of rocket fire in Tel Aviv less than two weeks before their trips were set to depart, 53 Dartmouth students ventured to Israel through cultural heritage birthright programs over winter break.
Chabad and Hillel facilitated trips through Mayanot Israel and Taglit-Israel Birthright, respectively.
Both are international organizations that provide funding for Jewish students between the ages of 18 and 26 to spend 10 days visiting various religious sites and cultural attractions in Israel, according to Rabbi Moshe Gray, who led the Chabad trip.
"It gives the students a very well-rounded taste of everything Israel has to provide, whether that's cultural, social or religious," Gray said.
The trips included visits to the cities of Tiberias, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Tzfat, an "ancient mystical city," as well as the Syrian and Lebanese borders, the Dead Sea, the Galilee region and the Nagev Desert, according to student participants.
Fifteen Dartmouth students participated in the Hillel trip, which was carried out in partnership with Union College, according to trip participant Amanda Zieselman '15. Thirty-eight students traveled with the Chabad's Mayanot Israel trip, a jump from its normal turnout of 10 to 15 applicants. Gray said the spike may stem from the earlier start of winter break, Gray said.
Security concerns in the wake of the November conflict with Hamas in Gaza caused several students to rethink their decision to participate, according to Gray.
Four students dropped out of the Chabad program, he said, and three students dropped out of the Hillel trip, according to Zieselman.
Ali Essey '13 said she decided to take part in the Chabad trip after much deliberation and consideration of the recent violence.
"The political situation in Israel is always a little bit volatile, so it always feels like there's some risk involved," she said.
Despite the political tensions, the participants did not encounter any difficulties and were not subject to additional security measures, according to Gray. Each trip is accompanied by an armed security guard, a physician and an official tour guide who remains constantly in contact with the Israel Ministry of Tourism's 24-hour security team, he said.
"It's a hard sell to parents and administrators, but ultimately 38 sets of parents felt comfortable enough to allow their students to go," Gray said.
Because the trips are run through Taglit-Birthright Israel and Mayanot Israel, they do not need to be approved by the College administration, Gray said.
Students on the trip said that they enjoyed the authentic experience of Israeli culture.
"I think I learned a lot about the people there and got a taste for the country as a whole," Nicholas Parillo '15 said in an email to The Dartmouth.
Esty Yanco '13, a student leader for the Chabad trip, has been to Israel five times, but said that traveling to the country with other Dartmouth students made it a more meaningful experience for her.
"Most trips are groups who don't know each other, and after the trip is over you all go your separate ways," she said. "When you go with 40 Dartmouth students who all have something in common, when I can walk into the dining hall and see them and have something to share it's something else."
While planning and logistical work for the trips are carried out by approved "provider organizations," Taglit-Birthright Israel and Mayanot Israel both provide full funding to every student selected to go on the trips, according to Yanco.
This funding comes from private donors, the state of Israel and Jewish communities around the world, she said. The trips are open all Jewish students, according to the trip providers' websites.