For college students who travel to Israel, the trip has a profound impact that energizes interest in Jewish culture, history and learning. At Brandeis University, one especially passionate group of students was determined to make that impact go even further.
Alex Thomson, a junior and former Co-President of the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee, had trekked to Israel three times. But the trip he took this past January was different.
With support from CJP, Alex helped “custom design” an Israel mission to address head-on social issues that were negatively affecting his campus community —all with the intent of bringing those experiences home in meaningful ways. And so, through coordinated efforts with key student groups, the Brandeis Bridges initiative was born.
Brandeis Bridges sent five Black and five Jewish students, or “Fellows,” all with diverse beliefs and backgrounds, to Israel with an important objective: to form a bond between two communities who are often disengaged and uninformed about each other’s passions, interests and cultures. Inspired by the civil rights movement, when leaders from diverse communities came together to address social inequalities, the Fellows aimed to prove that they, too, could overcome social distance through cooperation, camaraderie and above all, education.
Alex states, “We were able to take a microcosm of students and share in each other’s experiences from both a Jewish and Black perspective, then weave together that narrative of how Jews and Blacks work together.”
The Fellows explored other types of tensions as well, including the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, to further enrich their understanding of forging bonds despite differences. Trip participant Cynthia Jackson, President of MLK and Friends and a sophomore at Brandeis, reflects, “We met with political leaders, non-profit workers and reporters, but some of the best interactions were with average citizens.” She says, “There are mixed ethnicities, beliefs, religions, cultures and countries of origin. Israel is so rich and diverse, a fact that I never would have known.”
Alex notes another objective he kept in mind — to advance CJP’s mission. “Two important parts [of CJP’s mission] are extending programs that touch on Jewish life and learning, and strengthening the relationship to Israel. This trip obviously did both.” He adds, “CJP was one of the first donors to commit to us as a group. Had CJP not done that, the trip never would have come together.”
For the Bridges Fellows, Israel was only the first step. Alex states, “We wanted to come back as ambassadors for this new reconnection.” So once the trip ended, the mission to educate promptly began. The Fellows hosted a post-trip conference and slideshow that engaged the Brandeis community through panel discussions on race relations and served as a roadmap for future initiatives.
Next, the Fellows organized an Oneg Shabbat (an informal social and education gathering to celebrate Shabbat) with Hillel, where they sparked dialogue around the Black and Jewish communities’ shared histories and challenges.
The trip participants even directed and produced a play titled Fires in the Mirror, a production that put a spotlight on Jewish-Black relations in the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots that stoked tension between the two communities. Following each performance, the cast and crew facilitated discussions with the audience.
The Fellows’ efforts to bring new, positive energy to the Brandeis community are ongoing. As of this spring, Brandeis Bridges became an official student club dedicated to improving Black-Jewish relations on campus.
Future travels are in store as well, to destinations other than Israel.
“We’re working on making this an even partnership between the Black and Jewish communities,” Alex says. The Fellows are planning for a fall trip to Ghana, Africa, or possibly to New York City or the Deep South to focus on the Jewish and Black experience in America.
Learn more about CJP’s programs to enrich Jewish life on campus.