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First-Hand Lessons in International Human Rights Issues for Students on Trip to Israel

Clinical Professor Jennifer Rosen Valverde and eight law students from the Rutgers School of Law–Newark spent their seven days of spring break in and around Beer Sheva, Israel, as part of an exchange opportunity with Ben Gurion University (BGU). Beer Sheva is located in the southern part of the country in the Negev desert, approximately 40 miles east of Gaza. Their visit coincided with a period of turmoil in the region, requiring some disquieting adjustments to the itinerary but forging enduring bonds and teaching real lessons in international human rights law and policy.

Valverde etc. at Jaffa Gate
Professor Valverde (back row, third from right) with Rutgers law students and students and administrators from Ben Gurion University at the Jaffa Gate, the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. Click here for more photos of the exchange trip. 

“One of the things I love about Rutgers,” said Valverde, “is the diversity of the student body. I am truly amazed at how eight people from such different walks of life bonded during this trip to become lifelong friends, not only with each other but with their Israeli brothers and sisters. I am so very proud of each one of the students: Jason Bost ’13, Cindy Lou Cuesta ’14, Joy Durham ’12, Derya Kazak ’13, Jordana Mondrow ’12, Tim Pedergnana ’12, DJ Soltis ’13, and Boris Zaydel ’12.

The purpose of the exchange was for Rutgers students to learn about children’s rights, identity and advocacy in Israel. The group planned to study the Israeli legal system, focusing on children’s issues in particular, and to meet with representatives of several social service programs to find out about how they help the indigent, the marginalized and underserved, such as the Bedouin population, and immigrant populations, including those from Russia and Ethiopia.

Richard Isralowitz, Professor of Social Work at BGU and Rutgers Law School’s primary partner in the exchange, handled the organizational details on BGU’s end, together with Vered Sarousi and Ilan Kalgrad, Director and Assistant Director of BGU’s Community Action Program (CAP). Yair Ronen, an attorney and Professor of Social Work at BGU, was responsible for some of the legal lectures.

The CAP, a social justice initiative, accepts BGU undergraduate and graduate students into the program after a stringent application process. Once accepted, the students receive free housing in apartments located in the most socio-economically challenged Beer Sheva neighborhoods. In return, each student offers 8–10 hours per week of educational, social and other assistance programs for the neighborhood residents and “adopts” a family in the community to foster the development of meaningful relationships between students and residents.

The goal of CAP is to generate positive change in the community and to make BGU programs and services more accessible to local residents. The CAP arranged for Rutgers students to live with the Israeli students in the CAP apartments and to participate with the CAP students in the programs they run. 

As Valverde recalled: “Two months of intense planning preceded the trip, and tight schedules for the visit were in place. But the first lesson we learned after touching down was that when it comes to planning in Israel, flexibility is key. 

“Rockets from Gaza started falling just before our arrival and continued throughout our stay. We heard our first siren after eating lunch on the day we arrived and quickly were rushed into a ‘safe room,’ windowless and fortified with concrete pillars and steel supports. The scenario seemed surreal; fatigue had started to set in after flying all night with little sleep, yet the seriousness with which our Israeli partners took the siren coupled with the ‘booms’ we heard outside jolted us awake like caffeine injections. Most of the students appeared to take the situation in stride. All expressed an appropriate level of concern but when offered the opportunity to return home, all vehemently refused.”

The Rutgers group then received an orientation to the CAP and heard from some of the students about their work in the community. “Several of the CAP students are immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia,” Valverde said, “and they eloquently described their commitment to improving the lives of community members and the positive impact they have had on specific children.” That evening BGU hosted a feast at a local restaurant for the Rutgers students and their Israeli counterparts, the BGU faculty, CAP lead staff and the president of BGU.

Valverde and students at kibbutz
With Professor Valverde at Sde Boker are (l-r): Professor Isralowitz of BGU and Rutgers students Joy Durham, Tim Pedergnana, Cindy Lou Cuesta, Boris Zaydel, Jordana Mondrow, Jason Bost, DJ Soltis, and Derya Kazak.

Continuing rocket attacks the next day shut down the city. Schools closed, the university closed, programs closed. Professor Valverde and Professor Isralowitz abandoned their initial plans and instead headed for a settlement in the Negev near the kibbutz of Sde Boker. The group visited a residential treatment facility for adults and teenagers in the middle of the desert. They learned about the country’s drug and alcohol problems, the laws and consequences in place for these types of offenses, and efforts being made to address these needs. They also stood side by side with the facility’s residents in the safe room as a siren rang.

In the afternoon, classes were held in Sde Boker where Rutgers students discussed their expectations for the weeklong visit. Expectations included learning about the Israeli legal system, children’s rights in the areas of education, child welfare and delinquency, and the role of a lawyer on behalf of children. The law students received a brief overview of the Israeli legal system, the process for becoming a lawyer in Israel, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its adoption and implementation in Israel. That evening Rutgers students returned to their hosts in Beer Sheva, which had experienced more rockets but no injuries and only minimal property damage, and were surprised with an impromptu Purim party that lasted well into the night.

Meanwhile, since the continuing rocket attacks pointed to the possibility of a ground war, Professors Valverde and Isralowitz made plans for the students to leave Beer Sheva the following day and arranged for visits with different social service agencies.  At approximately 2 a.m., Egypt brokered a truce but, given the uncertainty as to whether it would hold, the Rutgers group traveled to Kfar Adiel, a village for BGU students in Ashalim, south of Beer Sheva.

Professor Valverde explained that Kfar Adiel offered another example of the social justice movement in Israel. It is a graduate student-built and managed settlement in which students provide programs, services and support to residents in exchange for free housing and university tuition. After visiting the village, where Valverde and her clinic students would return to spend the night, they attended a lecture on Israel’s Bedouin population. This was followed by a visit to a Bedouin safe house – in reality, a Bedouin family home that opens its doors to abused, neglected and abandoned children, including children from other Bedouin camps as well as from immigrant communities. 

That night in Ashalim, the Israeli students built a bonfire in the desert and prepared stew in an old cast iron poike pot cooked over the fire. “We heard booms in the distance,” Valverde reported, “but our friends reassured us that they were far away and most likely training going on at the military base.”

All had been quiet in Beer Sheva since late morning the prior day, so the group decided to return to the city the following morning. Students had a lecture on Sharia Law followed by a lecture on the application of family law to different populations in Israel (e.g., ultra-orthodox Jewish, Bedouin) and how Israeli civil law operates in tandem with these other cultural/religious-based laws. 

The Rutgers Law School group then had a conversation with the deputy director of the bureau of social affairs for the Negev about the events over the prior three days. “We discussed our feelings and reactions to what had happened,” Valverde recalled, “and the effects of our own values and experiences on our interpretation of and responses to the events. We spoke of frames of reference and how they differ and what that means for us and for Israelis. Though guarded at times, students spoke honestly about their experience, revealing the tremendous impact it had had on their lives.” 

Professor Valverde and her students spent Thursday in Jerusalem. They first met with New Jersey native Arthur Lenk, director of the department of international law in the legal office of the Foreign Ministry, to discuss issues of international law and Israel. They then toured the Supreme Court building, wandered the old city, and ended the day with a visit to Yad Vashem and a lecture on legal issues surrounding the Holocaust. After a quiet night in Beer Sheva, the group traveled to Masada and the Dead Sea on their final day. Friday night was spent in Tel Aviv, and the students left Israel on Saturday.

Valverde is very proud of her students and how they responded to the challenges of the trip. “They demonstrated incredible strength, kindness, resilience, warmth, intelligence and most of all humor during our trip. While perhaps they did not learn all of the lessons we had intended, those they missed were replaced with lessons on international human rights and experiencing first-hand, for brief moments, the toll that living under the constant threat and periodic barrage of rocket attacks takes on the lives of all who live in the Negev. These are the lessons that will last a lifetime.” 

For their part, the Israeli faculty, students and administrators expressed great interest in learning more about social justice initiatives and human rights issues in the United States. It is Valverde’s hope that the Rutgers Law School trip was the beginning of a regular exchange program with Ben Gurion University.