Year of Kivunim unites young travelers

We wound our way through the busy streets of Athens, dodging loud protesters commemorating the 1973 Greek student uprising, until we came upon an unassuming six-story apartment building and climbed the narrow stairwell to the top floor.

This was the Chabad center of Athens and the home of Rabbi Mendel Hendel and his family — who also happen to be the only five members of the Athens Chabad. I took my seat at the crowded Shabbat dinner table surrounded by 19 of my fellow world travelers on the Kivunim program, an Israel-based, year-long travel and study program for college students.

To my left sat Yael, whom we affectionately call “the Italian.” Born and raised in Tuscany, she speaks flawless Hebrew, thanks to her Israeli mother. At the end of the table sat Ira, from Moscow, next to Jessie, from Milwaukee, who spent most of the evening talking politics with a soldier on leave from Iraq who needed a warm Shabbat meal while traveling in Greece.

Under the table, 6-year-old Aryeh Mendel scurried back and forth, pulling on my leg, growling and constantly reminding me in Hebrew that his name means “lion” and that I should be very scared. That Shabbat dinner was a fusion of cultures, languages, ideologies and different walks of Jewish life all brought together under one roof — everything Kivunim stands for.

Kivunim, in Hebrew “directions,” is an independent, nonprofit program that gathers pre-college students from all parts of the globe to spend the year traveling and engaging Jews in communities throughout the world and Israel. In addition to Greece, we travel to Morocco, Spain, Turkey India, Hungary and the Czech Republic. While in Israel we travel within the country, volunteer once a week, study Hebrew, Arabic, history and Middle Eastern politics, and focus on developing our awareness of the world and coexisting within it.

My room is the best snapshot of the wide array of Jews Kivunim attracts. My roommate, Daniel, from Seattle, did not study Hebrew past his bar mitzvah, and when we arrived together at Ben-Gurion Airport, it was his first time in Israel. My other roommate, Dovid (who now goes by David), comes from an Orthodox family in Sydney, Australia, and attended private Jewish day school all his life. His older brother joined the Israel Defense Forces about three months ago.

I come from a Reform household; my father is a Reform rabbi, my mother a vice president of United Jewish Communities and I attended Jewish day schools and Camp Hess-Kramer for most of my life. Half the group is shomer Shabbat and keeps kosher. The other half loves taking cabs to the Arab market on Saturday afternoons. It has created an environment ripe with interesting religious conversation and chock full of heated debate and, most importantly, deep friendships.

In addition to different types of people, Kivunim strives to show its students the sides of Israel few visitors get to see. One of our most serious experiences with coexistence was our three-day stay in the homes of Arab Israelis in the village of Mazra’a, a town unmarked on most maps but located about 20 kilometers south of the Lebanese border, near Nahariya. During those three days I worked on my Arabic with my host, Mustafa, and also toured the north of Israel with an Arab guide who took us to remnants of Arab villages and told us of displaced Muslim families. It was far removed from the classic Zionist image delivered at most Jewish day schools and Jewish camps.

It was even further removed from our day trip to the West Bank, where we spoke with David Wielder, who spoke on behalf of 800 settlers firmly rooted in their right to live in Hebron. Many Kivunim students wrestled with these contrasting pictures of Israel, but again, this kind of struggle is exactly what Kivunim is all about.

In the three short months since the program began, I have undoubtedly received a much more nuanced view of world Jewry and Israeli society that I could not have understood within the sheltered confines of the Los Angeles Jewish community. My view on “the conflict” is far more confused than it was before I arrived in Israel, despite endless hours of conversation and study that I had hoped would result in some answers. Whether camping in a remote canyon in the middle of the Negev or elbowing through a mob of passengers trying to board an Israeli bus, Israel has been revealed to me for all of its incredible strengths as well as the occasional blemish.

After years and years of Israeli history and Hebrew class, it is only after living here for a few months that I have started to understand the intricacies of Israeli culture, the complexity of the conflict and the many peoples who call this place their home. My only disappointment is that more Jewish high school graduates do not take a break from the rigor of American academics by taking a year to do some traveling, feel what it’s like to live in the land of Israel and return to their college campuses with a broader understanding of both the secular and Jewish worlds.

Noah Stern graduated from Milken Community High School last year and will be attending UC Berkeley next year.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15; deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15. Send submissions to