Defending Israel becomes passion for local college student
Many people would shy away from visiting Israel in the middle of a war. Rebecca Gildiner is not one of them. Not only did she travel to Israel during the recent war in Gaza, but the 21-year-old student at Colgate University regards the experience as a turning point in her life.
"It raised my sense of responsibility towards the country," said Gildiner, a Cherry Hill resident and the daughter of Drs. Lynn Green and Lennard Gildiner. She said that the Israelis who are suffering under the Hamas missile attacks are holding the land for the entire Jewish people. "If they leave, the Jews are gone."
Gildiner spent a week in Israel as a volunteer and then toured the country for another week with a friend she met on her Jewish National Fund (JNF)/Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) Alternative Winter Break trip. "One week is never enough in Israel," said Gildiner after her third trip to Israel.
She departed for Israel the day after Operation Cast Lead was launched. "It was a little worrisome. My parents were concerned," said Gildiner. She said, however, that she did not think JNF would take her to someplace unsafe. "We were about 50 miles from Gaza, out of missile range." She added that the war did make it impossible for her and others on the trip to visit the town of Sderot. Gildiner had raised money to help build a JNF playground in Sderot.
A member of Temple Beth Sholom and an alumna of Midrashah and Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Gildiner spent most of her time volunteering in Yeroham, a 9,000- resident development town in the Negev. "We did a lot of beautifying projects—painting, working in a soup kitchen, and farm work."
Gildiner said that the Negev is beautiful, but Yeroham is economically depressed and isolated. "A local resident described the town by saying, 'go to the end of the world, and then turn left,'" she said. Despite the disadvantages, Gildiner said that Yeroham's residents take a lot of pride in their town. "People are building the Negev. They are not giving up hope."
"People were very grateful," said Gildiner of Yeroham's residents. She said that she and the other 38 volunteers in her group were greeted warmly. "As we were painting, people came out to offer us coffee and fruit." Gildiner said she really felt a connection to the land and the people of Israel.
"The trip solidified for me the importance of the Jewish state," said Gildiner. "We have this country that is always there for us, but it won't always be there unless we do something to keep it alive and strong and Jewish."
Gildiner was energized by the fact that her bus of volunteers included many passionate supporters of Israel from campuses around the United States. She said that advocating on behalf of Israel is not always the popular position at college.
"People on the trip were getting emails and Facebook messages asking them how they could go to such a warmongering place," said Gildiner. She said that as a pacifist, she does not believe in war in general, but Israel was being attacked. "This is one of the most just wars Israel has fought in the past few years." She said that Hamas bombed Israel during the ceasefire, and Israel offered to extend the ceasefire. Israel also did its best to avoid civilian casualties, according to Gildiner.
Gildiner saw how missiles were hitting Sderot and other towns, but the world media only reported how Israel "was bombing the crap out of Gaza." She heard directly from Israelis who had been the victims of Hamas missiles. She saw how wounded Palestinians were treated in Israeli hospitals. She said she was frustrated to see the truth and yet know how the world perceived the conflict.
"In the past, I've always been a little intimidated about defending Israel," said Gildiner. She felt she didn't have the facts or didn't always agree with the Israeli government's positions. "Being there during wartime, and hearing firsthand from Israelis made me more passionate about the country," said Gildiner. She said that she wants to educate herself about the facts in order to be a more passionate defender of Israel. "Especially in a war like this when Israel is so in the right."
One of the most eye-opening moments in Israel occurred when Gildiner visited the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. "Jews are hated around the world, stereotyped, stigmatized and oppressed," she said. The Diaspora Museum showed how Jews were "exiled and killed, exiled and killed."
In Israel, life is centered on the Jewish holidays and traditions, according to Gildiner. "We have a place where Jews can be Jews." .