Even though she was in the middle of a war, Elizabeth Ebert-Zavos felt completely safe.
For 12 days, accompanied by three soldiers, an armed retired medic and a tour guide, she witnessed the devastation occuring in Israel -- homes destroyed, bodies laid to rest and buildings riddled with bullets -- as part of the ongoing conflict over the Gaza Strip.
While many students headed home to catch up on some much-needed rest during winter break, Penn State students Shari Block, Brian Chane, Laura Karp, Kesha Mejeritski and Seth Rothman, along with Ebert-Zavos (sophomore-agriculture) entered the war-stricken area of Israel at the height of its conflict with Gaza.
The trip was offered at no cost to the students under the international organization Taglit-Birthright Israel, which believes all Jewish students should be presented with the opportunity to go to Israel, trip coordinator Lauren Schuchart said.
The expiration of a six-month cease-fire in early December escalated agressions between Israel and Palestinian political group Hamas. As death tolls climbed and areas were destroyed on both sides of the border, the students became witnesses to the effects of a war that has its roots in a long-standing conflict over the control of the Gaza Strip.
"We could see the tension," Laura Karp (sophomore-biobehavioral health) said. "We were completely safe, but we could feel it."
The students quickly learned that living in Israel was vastly different from the daily struggles Americans face. Mejeritski (senior-marketing) said by the third day on the trip, they had completely adapted to the Israeli way of life.
"Anywhere you go, you have to open everything and show what you had," Mejeritski said. "You unzip your jacket and open up your bags -- it's just the way things are. You do it at the McDonalds, you do it at the 7-Eleven. This is the way people live and they accept that."
For Chane (sophomore-business administration), witnessing conflict was more than he could handle. He learned that once Israeli men turn 18, they are placed into the Israeli army.
Chane said the three soldiers that accompanied the students throughout the entire trip were only about a year older than he was -- between the ages of 20 and 22. But even though they were relatively close in age, Chane said the soldiers behaved much more "maturely" and "older" than anyone he knew.
"We, as college students, just go around and have fun," Chane said. "We don't really worry about much, except for grades. You see the people living over there and no one should have to live like that. It's not living. You can't ever relax."
Mekeritski agreed. He said being in Israel and seeing so many people fighting for it made him think about what he has done to make the U.S. a better place. He added that although he is getting an education, he really hasn't contributed to the U.S. in the same way as the soldiers have to Israel.
"They have their country, their family and even their own lives to worry about," he said. "They are the founding fathers of Israel. Everyone is so proud and happy to be Israeli, and fighting for it."
Even though some students struggled with the pressure of the conflict in Gaza, Rothman (sophomore-architecture) was very happy to be in Israel during a war period. He said even though his parents had reservations about him going, the trip allowed him to form his own opinions about the conflict and see it firsthand.
"You can see that Israel doesn't want to be in this war," Rothman said. "You could feel it -- they simply didn't want to do this."
For Block (senior-psychology), the experience was "life-changing." The trip allowed her to get in touch with her Jewish heritage as well as experience the area herself, she said.
"When you arrive, everyone tells you 'welcome home,' and it's true -- this is your homeland," Block said. "It feels like you're home."