Where Marshall can take you: Israel

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Gretel Toloza traveled to Israel and was almost not allowed in. 

Toloza, a Marshall University senior who went to Israel to participate in the Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission, was almost sent home when Israeli officials discovered she did not have a valid visa to enter Israel.

Toloza being a Cuban national was traveling with her Cuban passport, and she said the people who helped her prepare for the trip were unaware she was required to have an Israeli visa upon entry.

Toloza said she was questioned about how she was even allowed to fly to Israel without the visa, and the officials had to decide how to handle the situation. 

After some deliberation, Toloza said the Israeli officials provided her with an Isreali visa so she could still participate in the adventures, and she said she came home with more than she could have imagined. 

“I don’t know what my favorite part was because I really loved every bit of it,” Toloza said. “I came out learning a cultural part, a political part and a Christian part and I loved it.”

The Caravan for Democracy provided 35 students with a 10-day activity-filled trip to learn about Israel’s culture and community. Toloza was the only student from Marshall for the 2019-2020 academic year, and she said the trip had more to offer her than she originally believed. 

“I went in mostly for the Christian side, but what turned out to be interesting is how drawn I got into the political side,” she said. “Because there is so much history, and it is so interesting to know why other people want to destroy Israel.”

As a religious person, Toloza said she was interested in going to Israel to learn about its religious history, mentioning Jerusalem and where Jesus was baptized and resurrected. Yet Toloza said she felt as if she was reliving history as she learned about Israel. 

“I feel like when I went to Israel, I was more like walking through history, basically living every single moment,” she said. “It was so powerful. Like they took us to the Holocaust Museum and it was like us living through every day that the people lived.”

The trip included letting the students travel to different parts of the country to both learn and enjoy themselves. Toloza said the group went to visit hospital sites made up of tents, which were set up at the Syrian border, and she was able to see how people were willing to help Syrians, even though there is a history of conflict between the two countries. 

“When people were coming (to the hospital tents) in heeps, and so many people got help,” she said. “And even though they were the enemy, they (Israelis) opened their arms and helped them. I thought that was amazing because you’re putting your country at risk letting people in. I thought it was very open-hearted.” 

Toloza also mentioned how the travelers were able to go through a chocolate factory to make their own chocolate, explore a goat farm, meet students who go to universities in Israel and attend Shabbat, a weekly observance central to Jewish faith. 

To further enhance her Christian faith, Toloza chose to get baptized in the Jordan River, where Jesus is said to have been baptized. She also got to enjoy authentic cuisine among Jewish, Ethiopian and Arabic communities. 

“The food was amazing,” Toloza said. “I ate a lot of falafel. But there was Ethiopian food and it was so fresh and authentic. And we went to a winery and got to taste some of the wines from Israel.”

Toloza said one of the events that surprised her was learning about how important the military is to the people of Israel. She said with Israel being small and basically being surrounded by countries they have conflict with, it makes sense to her why people have to go into the military when they reach a certain age. 

“Everyone is obligated to go into the military, no matter if you are a boy or girl you have to go because Israel has such a small population and has so many enemies, so it is a duty for them to defend their own country,” she said. 

Toloza said the trip to Israel was amazing for her and she hopes more students look into the trip to go next year, set for Dec. 26, 2020-Jan. 5, 2021, where more students will be welcomed to learn about Israel. The deadline for applications is May 31, 2020, and a list of requirements can be found at the Jewish National Fund website.

Sarah Ingram can be contacted at [email protected]