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Diverse group of WSU students sees Israel as a culture apart from conflict

A contingent of Wayne State University students with diverse religious backgrounds and professional aspirations embarked on what hopes to be the university’s first annual “Engaging Israeli Technology” tour of Israel.

With a jam-packed schedule, the itinerary blended highlights and landmarks of a typical first trip to the Jewish state with customized visits to sites such as high-tech startup incubators, biotech companies, an Arab-Israeli college specializing in scientific studies and a pediatric care center for children from developing countries.

The May trip was funded in part by gifts from individual donors, notably Irving and Barbara Nusbaum, Michael and Elaine Serling and the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at WSU, according to Howard Lupovitch, the center’s director.  Depending on funding sources, Cohn-Haddow plans to repeat the trip in coming years to offer other curious students an opportunity to see Israel for themselves.

The trip was the culmination of an Israeli culture course, part of the Hebrew Israeli Studies program in the Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department. The course was taught by professor Edith Covensky.

“Your journey to Israel was as unique as the peaceful cooperation and collaboration found amongst Jewish, Muslim and Christian students here at Wayne State,” Lupovitch said to some of the students who gathered on campus in late June for a post-trip debriefing and presentation. “We all may have read or seen something about Israel in the media and Israel is often portrayed through conflict. But trips like this allow us to see a culture apart from conflict, and teach us not to reduce any society or country down to [a narrow view of] its problems.”

Lupovitch said plans are underway for students to give presentations about their trips on campus, as part of the Judaic Center’s Thursday lunch-and-learn presentations, a session at the upcoming October Midwest Jewish Studies Association conference and the March 2018 Limmud conference.

Challenging Perceptions
As he wandered through the streets of Jerusalem and dined with a Druze family in the Golan Heights, Near Eastern Studies major Joseph Shoukair contemplated his Arabic identity, as the trip challenged him to “take a good look in the mirror and challenge his own perceptions” about Israel.

“As a Lebanese American, identity is a big issue for me,” the Northville resident said. “The trip was a positive experience because I got up close to see the details of Israel, but saw the big picture, too, in a way that would have been impossible if I hadn’t gone on this trip.  Jerusalem is like a quilt as you walk through and experience all of the different cultures that call it home.”

Annie Petranovic of Lake Orion desired to visit Israel since she was 16. As a Christian, she marveled at both the sites from her own religion while learning about the holy spots of others. She even put her Hebrew minor skills to use.

“It brought all my studies into focus as I was surrounded by the language on both religious and secular levels,” Petranovic said. “Being in the Old City of Jerusalem is like falling in love. And on a practical level, I was able to read street signs and ask for extra blankets [in the hotel] in Hebrew.”

Geology and anthropology major Lisatte Witterodt of Farmington Hills was enthralled to learn about the mineral deposits at the Dead Sea, but what moved her most were her encounters with the Arab and Jewish employees at the SodaStream factory.

“The SodaStream visit was very powerful,” Witterodt said. “Several times, people asked me to take photographs of them or wanted to pose in photos with me, as if they wanted me to remember them. It was a very personal interaction with the people who live in Israel.”

For some of the Jewish students on the trip, like Risa White-Mabry, who have spent several semesters taking Jewish and Hebraic studies courses, the visit to Israel filled a spiritual void.

“You never realize you have a spiritual vacancy until you find what makes you complete,” Mabry said. She added that a visit to Plurastem, a company that develops connective tissue to be used to treat many diseases, made her realize that Israel is a place where spirituality and technology feed off and complement each other. “In both Judaism and technology, there is a constant need to seek out knowledge and truth.”

It was Shlomo Muszkat’s third trip to Israel. The only religious Jew of the group, the biology major from Oak Park found himself answering his travel mates’ questions about Judaism and sharing insights into his Orthodox upbringing to the others.

“Every trip to Israel is unique, but on this trip, I found myself marveling at Israel’s contributions to the 21st century as well as confronting my own identity as a religious Jew.”

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

WSU students at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem: Matthew Tukel, Shlomo Muszkat, Tal Rosner, Annie Petranovic, Angelina Starceski and Joseph Shoukair

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