Secret Gift Creates Special Israel Experience
EducationGoing Beyond the Standard Israel Mission

Secret Gift Creates Special Israel Experience

Institute for the Study of Modern Israel students past and present deepen their understanding over 10 days.

Ken Stein

Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education ( and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

The ISMI Israel trip group visits the Golan Heights.
The ISMI Israel trip group visits the Golan Heights.

A unique story about a large, restricted gift by a totally anonymous donor to Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel. No knowledge whatsoever about the donor, except he/she learned of the rigor in the classroom and undergraduate research internships we have done each semester and summers in learning about Israel.

Working through a lawyer, apparently a former student of mine, an Emory development officer told me last summer: “A person is happy about the level of scholarship you are providing and wants to deepen understanding of Israel. The very large gift can be used for one purpose: for you to take your present and/or former students to Israel. You choose the participants. You create the special itinerary, connect them to the best specialists and visit the out-of-the-way places, see Israel as you know it. The first trip should be next spring. And there are enough funds for you to do this several more times.”

Don’t shake your head: I have no idea who made the gift. No idea.

I have kept up with many of my former students, so it was not difficult to identify the best of them. From a list of 85, I called the first three dozen in late December and January, with the last trip participant corralled a month before the May trip.

Imagine getting a phone call from a former professor who asks, “What are you doing the second 10 days next May? Would you like to go to Israel on an all-expense-paid trip that I shall be leading? Your only obligation is to travel to and from JFK.”

Most of the reactions ranged from “I did not know you remembered me” to “Are you sh–ting me?” to “Who would pay for me to go to Israel for nothing in return except to learn more?” Also, “This is going be like your classroom, right — Israel’s story, all of it, the culture, economy, the conflict, right?”

Some said no because work or family issues intervened. One of the former students had made aliyah to Israel, and I did not know it and could not find him to ask about availability.

Twenty-one former and present students, ranging in age from 20 to 55, spent nights in Tel Aviv, the Galilee and Jerusalem. In the group were seven people involved in business and investment, a professor, a lawyer, one administrator for a think tank and one for a hospital, a Ph.D. student, a part-time Jewish camp manager, three recent Emory graduates, two rising Emory seniors, several current students from other universities who worked for ISMI as summer interns, and one former Emory student entering rabbinic school in the fall.

Unknown to me when I chose the participants, three of the 21 were former presidents of Emory Hillel.

The eclectic collection of occupations and age ranges (average 29) prompted each to be curious about the others. It made for a delightful exchange of characters and personalities. This was not a cookie-cutter Facebook page group, Birthright, JNF or teen travelers

As part of the meetings held, the group met five former students who had immigrated to Israel. One works for the Joint Distribution Committee. Another runs a startup business incubator in Tel Aviv. Another owns a restaurant in Ramallah. A fourth is in high tech. The fifth, whom I could not find in the original search for trip participants, I found in our hotel lobby one evening in Jerusalem in his IDF uniform, joking around with his Emory peers. Needless to say, he and his other Atlanta friend joined us for dinner.

What were the takeaways? One of our non-Jewish participants teared up after going to confession in a Nazareth church.

A first-time traveler who is now an Emory senior said: “This Golan synagogue is from the fifth century B.C.E.; who is going tell us that we were not here before they came up from the Arabian Peninsula almost a thousand years later?”

Each internalized Israel’s complexities, nuances and faces. Each deepened his or her understanding of Israel and engaged with some of Israel’s sharpest minds while probing Israel’s controversial domestic and foreign policy issues.

The donor gave all of them a special look inside Israel, a penetrating look inside themselves. Maybe the donor will join a future trip.

I delighted in seeing those “kids” being inquisitive. What a gift.

Ken Stein is the president of the Center for Israel Education and the director of Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

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