Rhonda Van Hassalt's concerned father offered her $1,000 not to go to Israel. Although the money would have been enough to send both Van Hassalt's and her boyfriend to Europe for winter break, it wasn't Europe that was tugging at her heart -- it was Israel.
"When I was young, I heard stories about Israel and it was one of the top three places that I wanted to go," the petite and poised 20 year-old said from the lobby of the Dan Panorama in Jerusalem, the site of a Hillel Shabbat dinner. "I'm a history buff, so I know the history of a lot of places, but I've never seen them. I had very little Jewish upbringing, and I wanted to get more in touch with my Jewish self. I figured a trip to Israel would let me learn more about the culture and about my religion."
Opting to turn down her father's offer and satisfy her own curiosity, the UCLA sophomore packed her bags, marked Israel off her list and joined a group of 30 other college students from across California to see for herself what no history book could ever tell her.
Van Hassalt was one of 8,200 18-26-year-olds who made the decision to participate in Birthright Israel's 2002-2003 winter programs. Coming from some 26 different countries, participants were divided in smaller groups of about 40. The groups -- sometimes together, sometimes apart -- toured Israel for 10-days on specialized trips with emphases ranging from religious to political to athletic to singles'-focused tours.
For many, the decision was not an easy one. Participants faced outside pressures from family and friends, and dealt with internal conflict about the risks involved in visiting a country whose turbulence never misses a day of front-page news. But after listening, contemplating and weighing their options, the desire to learn more about themselves, their heritage and Israel's current situation prevailed.
Katya Salganick, a participant on the Hillel program, Birthright's largest tour organizer, signed up for the program after attending a class at UC Berkeley called "Palestinian Resistance Literature." Although she wasn't very involved Jewishly on campus, as the only Jew in the class she was uncomfortable.
"We read a lot of Edward Said. It was really one-sided and taken out of context."
While Salganick got an A in the she wanted another perspective.
"It put a fear factor on coming here because it definitely puts a perspective on what the Palestinians are fighting for. But I wanted to see the other side," Salganick told The Journal from the Foreign Ministry, after hearing (current) Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak.
From political discussions to meetings with top Israeli officials, participants on each of Birthright's 20-plus trips offered a variety of different perspectives on the conflict. But in the end, participants were left to come to their own conclusions.
Some were left with a feeling frustration.
"Who's to say that children are not going to continue suicide bombings? said Fenon Frazier, a participant on the Israel Experts program, a politically focused Birthright trip which primarily attracts unaffiliated Jews.
"How can there ever be peace?" he asked, as he and 40 others learned about geography, sitting on a life-size map at Kibbutz Ma'ale Hachamisha near Jerusalem. "I can't visualize it. I see more death, I see more conflict and I see more coffins."
For others, the experience offered clarity.
"This is a time when the media is portraying this cruel image when really Israel is an amazing place to be," said Jonas Aharoni, a student at UC Davis. "I know the real Israel, and there's so much good here."
But whatever their interpretation, all of the participants gained a deeper understanding for the paradoxical situation that makes up Israel today.
"It's overwhelming. It's a myriad of emotions. It's exciting, it's emotional and it's scary," said David Tiktin, a graduate student in screenwriting at USC. "We were given a walking tour and we could see Ramallah and it really sunk in -- we're here in the thick of it -- but most of all, it's energizing."
So energized were many by the experience that their initial concerns over safety and security dissipated.
Max Samuel Libling, a senior at UCSB, pulled out of the trip last year after a bombing. But this year he went through with it.
"I wanted to see it for myself," Libling said on the penultimate day of his tour. "Now that I'm here I feel comfortable and I have no fear."
At the end of the 10-day program, participants came away with a greater understanding about modern-day Israel, a personal relationship to the Jewish State and a deeper connection to each other. "It's been amazing to see all the levels of Judaism that people are bringing to the table," said Donna Mashadi, a graduate student in education at Long Beach State. "Even though our levels are very different we're all experiencing the same thing. It's very powerful."