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SDSU student gains new perspective of Israel

Nick Grote became only the second South Dakota State University student selected to participate in an elite group that toured Israel during Christmas break.
Grote, a 2021 graduate of Aberdeen Central High School and a junior business economics major, was one of 70 U.S. college students chosen for the Jewish National Fund’s Caravan for Democracy. The all-expense paid, 10-day (Dec. 27-Jan. 7) trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Grote said.
Selection is highly competitive and is geared to non-Jewish college and university student leaders who have never been to the country. The program, which has been running since 2010, provides participants with the opportunity to explore Israel through a tour of the country with local guides and meetings with political, cultural and business leaders from all backgrounds and faiths.
Grote said, “It opened my worldview. I’ve stayed in the Midwest most of my life. The Middle East really broadened my horizon about how much there is to see in the world and how I look at the countries within because there is so much more to it than just the headlines.”
“I saw that in places of conflict there is still so much love and hope and resilience. Nobody wants to send their sons and daughters to war. Everyone wants peace.”
 
Close look at security issues
The students’ journey took them to an overlook of the Gaza Strip, a densely populated, seaside region that has been the subject of heated disputes with the Palestinians and Israelis; to Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the hardest-fought battles for control of Jerusalem between Jordan and Israel in 1967; and to the Armistice Center in Northern Israel, where a former Israeli Defense Force intelligence officer presented the group with an interesting military crisis situation.
In the simulation, the students assumed roles in a government and were tasked with making a decision based intelligence gathered on how to handle a military situation. Grote assumed the role of the deputy prime minister and presented his office’s solution.
The students’ consensus was “Wow. This is complicated,” Grote said.
He said the 70 students were a diverse group with many of them being international students and many from Ivy League schools such as Cornell, Princeton and Penn. Grote and a student from Creighton were the only Midwest selections.
“The people on this trip didn’t know anyone from South Dakota,” Grote said.
He had been nominated by Rachel Schoon, who went in 2021-22 and was the vice president of the SDSU Students’ Association.
Grote was contacted in September by Caravan for Democracy and asked to apply. That consisted of several essay questions as well as detailing his leadership experience. Grote is in his second year on Students’ Association Senate serving as the vice chair of finance. He is on several university committees, as well as the CEO club, along with the Dean’s Student Advisory Council.
 
A country of contrasts
Politics, border security and Palestinian-Israeli tensions are inseparable from life in the nation that is the size of New Jersey. But it is much more than that, and Grote said the students experienced the breadth of its cultural diversity.
In Tel Aviv, a modern city along the Mediterranean, they toured a major technology company and got to hear from its executives, visited the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, where they learned about cutting-edge innovations that originated in Israel; and went on a “rainbow tour” of downtown Tel Aviv as it is considered the gay capital of the Middle East.
In the Galilee region, they experienced religiously significant sites like Capernaum where Jesus did much of his teaching.
Atop a plateau in the Judean Desert, Grote and the others explored the ancient palace of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. They then went down to swim in the lowest place on Earth.
In Jerusalem on Shabbat, or Sabbath, the students visited the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, which is the last remaining outer wall of the ancient Jewish temple in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Everybody dispersed and we experienced shabbat as a Jewish person would do. On this day, there is no work to be done, therefore everyone was living in the moment. Nobody was on their phone.”
But there was dancing, and Grote joined in.
“I hopped in with a group of locals. We danced in a circle and sang traditional songs. There were people of all ages. I laughed and smiled as I danced with them, not having to speak one word of English or Hebrew to enjoy our time together.”
 
Editor’s note: Jewish National Fund also offers a similar trip for faculty. This year’s trip is May 28-June 9 with an application deadline of Feb. 20. Info: http://www.ff2israel.org
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