Jan 5, 2015  By Melanie Young  Category: Education,

Caravan for Democracy: 'So much meaning in almost every aspect of Israeli life'

Photo: Will Baxley 
Caravan for Democracy guide Leor turns Chase Baker, a junior at the University
of North Florida,  into a human map of Israel.

Thirty-two college students of all faiths who have never visited Israel before are currently there participating in the 10-day 
Caravan for Democracy. The educational experience for young leaders includes touring; meeting political, cultural, and community leaders; and exploring components of Israel's diverse society. Here are early reflections from Melanie Young, a senior in urban studies and urban education at the University of Pennsylvania and recipient of a 2014 Women of Color at Penn award

Last night we arrived in Israel and were welcomed to the country by two Israelis, Leor and Iftah. Leor means "my light" and Iftah means "will open." I am learning very quickly that one can find so much meaning in almost every aspect of Israeli life. The names, the plants, the places all tell a story. The stories -- small, large, simple, and complex --- contribute to Israel's historical depth.
It has been really cool to observe Israel's landscape. Just from looking outside the window of our bus, I have been able to see that Israel is a land blessed with amazing crops such as pomegranates, grapes, olives, figs, dates wheat, and barley. It is even more amazing that all these crops grow from Israel's extremely rocky soil. There are rocks everywhere! Surprised by the fact that Israel's land is so rocky, I found out that in Hebrew there actually exists a verb for the action "to draw out rocks." This just goes to prove how determined Israeli people are to make this land a viable place for people to live and call home. 

Our first full day in Israel was filled with many important stops. Our first was visiting the Church of the Beatitudes. It was wonderful to have the experience to walk in the same location where Jesus delivered one of his most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. But the wonder of this experience didn't stop here. We also had the opportunity to visit Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, and the Israel/Syria/Lebanon border. Each of these sights taught us something different about the Israeli people and history. All in all, today was nothing short of amazing. 

One memory that stuck out the most took place on the boat while in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. While on the boat we had an opportunity to talk with an Israeli woman who worked to make sure that the water and marine ecosystem of the Sea of Galilee remained healthy. However, she shared with us something more than just facts about the sea. She shared a personal story. 

This lady used to live in Jerusalem. However, a few months ago, her family packed up all their things in search of a new place to live. She traveled around Israel with her husband and kids to find a place where she could teach her children to love and appreciate the beauty of nature. She now lives in the Golan Heights where her family has been involved in starting a settlement with other young Israelis. She and her husband saw a lot of promise in this land even though it is located close to ISIS troops. She believes there is a steady group of young people settling there who are determined to create a community where children can learn and grow surrounded by the captivating beauty of nature. This story reminded me of the determination of one family to find peace and beauty in a land that often has to face the atrocities of war. I feel blessed that she took the time to share this story with me and I am excited about what else is in store for this trip.

To read a day-by-day account of the Caravan for Democracy experience from the perspective of another participating student, Will Baxley, visit his blog

Photo: Will Baxley
Caravan for Democracy participants Melanie Young of the University of Pennsylvania (center) and Will Baxley of Jacksonville University get silly on the streets of Israel, while Natalie Davis of Ohio State (far right) photobombs.