An Insightful Journey To Jerusalem

Photo courtesy of Gillian Hammond.

Three days of exchanging ideas and learning about a foreign culture was the perfect end to an exciting and activity packed trip to the State of Israel.

Every January since 2009, James Halpern, psychology professor and director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz, has journeyed to Beer Sheva, Isreal to teach a course on crisis counseling at Ben Gurion University.

But this year was special.

This year, Halpern brought along seven New Paltz graduate students for the week-long trip from Jan. 2-9. They spent three days touring the country and speaking with leaders and social workers about life in an area of the world where crisis and emergency are a daily occurrence.

Day one was spent in Jerusalem, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the old city, the Church of the Holy Sephulchre and the Wailing Wall.

The second day was full of fun as students climbed Mount Masada, ventured to the Dead Sea and settled down at a Negev Desert student housing complex, Ayalim Dimona, with their hosts, Israeli students, to a homemade poykee dinner of chicken and traditional regional spices.

On their third day came the Gaza Border and the surrounding communities that are severely impacted by the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

One such community was the Kibbutz Nir Am. The Kibbutz’s spokesperson, Ofer Lieberman, spoke with the group about how the community copes with the struggle of daily violence. He referred to life in the Kibbutz as “dealing with routine emergency.”

“That quote is very pointing because in the United States there is no such thing … if it is an emergency, how can it be routine,” Halpern said. “But that’s the way they live near the [Gaza] border.”

Near a playground, and all throughout the Kibbutz, the group found reinforced concrete bomb shelters. According to Halpern, once the bomb siren begins community members have only seven seconds to get to one of these shelters before bombs begin to fall.

Throughout the day, they spoke with other community leaders who all gave a unique insight into the very trying situations they and the locals deal with every day. As his voice quivered, Halpern noted how all of the speakers cried for the loss of innocent life on both sides of the border.

For the last three days of the trip, the group joined 25 Israeli students and went to class.

Halpern said he loved being able to provide the New Paltz students and Israeli students the opportunity to work together and learn from each other.

These last few days were the most enjoyable for students as well.

Gillian Hammond is a second-year graduate student studying mental health counseling. She had never been to Israel before, but after this trip she said she definitely wants to go back.

“The course would not have been the same if we hadn’t gone to Israel,” Hammond said. “Interacting with the [Israeli] students was the best part of the trip.”