Israeli brings aspects of his country to America

This is a republication of an original article written by Jessica Groves, in the Collegiate Times on Thursday, February, 7, 2013.

two young men stand together in front of a bulletin board

Ivan and Andrew Lindsay, a political Science major with a concentration in national security, discuss Krav Maga. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense forces and was developed in Israel.

Ivan Goncharenko says Americans think two things when they think of Israel: Judaism and conflict. He also says they couldn’t be more wrong.

The Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel at Virginia Tech isn’t here to ask for America’s help at all; he wants to help us.

“Israel is really about technology,” Goncharenko said. “We’re creating thousands of jobs for Americans. We’re building American plans with Israeli thoughts, and that’s where the Friends of Israel club comes from.”

He doesn’t want Friends of Israel to be thought of as a religious group though. To Goncharenko, the club’s mission is in its name.

“The mission is to be social and to build a connection to every department (at Tech),” Goncharenko said. “It’s not about helping Israel. It’s saying, ‘I have a connection to Israel that can help me.’”

Israel has already given Goncharenko beneficial connections. In Israel, young adults serve in the military before going on to universities. Goncharenko served in the Israel Defense Forces for three years in the K-9 unit, where he bonded with a Belgian Sheperd Malinois.

“She was the best girlfriend I ever had,” Goncharenko said jokingly.

He also crafted a strong bond with his company in the military. Goncharenko’s experience as a commander in the IDF has inspired him to work with the Corps of Cadets at Tech.

Even though he meets with non-Corps students in organizations at Tech, he feels a special bond with the students in the Corps. Goncharenko is redefining their idea of the IDF by bringing speakers to the cadets.

“We’re bringing an American author who served in the Israeli army and who compares between American business companies and the Israeli army,” Goncharenko said. “In Israel, everyone has to go to the army, but they go to schools and hospitals and help. It’s volunteering.”

The cadets are just one of many groups Goncharenko and Israel are reaching out to. Speakers come from places such as Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, and CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

“We have The David Project too, which gives grants to students to just meet and grab coffee and talk,” Goncharenko said. “I think when I meet people and I’m funny and Israeli, it helps people understand that Israel is absolutely normal.”

Like many Israeli students, Goncharenko attended university after his time in the military, where he studied Islam and international relations. He plans to use his skills as a leader to unite Tech and his country.

“I’m not here to ask for support for Israel,” Goncharenko said. “I want to be a part of this community.”

Goncharenko says his work with Hillel at Virginia Tech has two purposes: informing students about Israel and collaborating with other organizations at Tech. He plans to fight misconceptions about Israel by building connections and friendships, even in unconventional places.

“I really want to get the church on the board,” Goncharenko said. “I really enjoyed seeing the church service and I see how for Christians, Israel is important too.”

One of the most direct ways Goncharenko and Hillel reach out to Tech is through the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Jason Berube, a junior industrial systems and engineering major, went on the trip this winter.

“My mom was the one who told me about the trip,” Berube said. “She sent me emails about it and told me it changed her perspective and defined her Judaism.”

Berube applied for the birthright trip, which sends Jewish students on a free, 10-day expedition to Israel. During the trip, students meet with Israeli soldiers, visit famous cities such as Jerusalem, travel by camel, and swim in the Dead Sea.

Berube said the opportunity to meet other Jewish students from different schools on the trip piqued his interest.

“The trip gave me a sense of what Israel is really about and why we fight to support it,” Berube said. “I think that’s (Goncharenko’s) overall goal: to get the word out about normal Israel.”

Berube and Goncharenko met during the pre-trip planning meetings, but their friendship truly formed in Israel itself. After returning home, Berube said he could better understand why Goncharenko is so passionate about bringing Israel to students at Tech.

“A lot of kids like me, they don’t dissociate with being Jewish, but they don’t define themselves as Jewish either,” Berube said. “I’m not the most Jewish person, but going to Israel established a pride for being Jewish in me.”

After bonding with Israeli soldiers and American students in the same 10 days, he said the country influenced his perspective of the world. Like his mother, Berube was changed by his experience in Israel.

“Israel is a very important place, no matter whether you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim,” Berube said. “I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up.”

Like Berube and the other students he has encountered, Goncharenko knows Tech is a community where the bonds of friendship are stronger than any conflict or obstacle. He and the Friends of Israel believe the true face of Israel is in the relationships being built on campus.

“Israel is more about ‘You Don’t Mess with the Zohan’ than it is about conflict,” Goncharenko said. “I really hope one day people will look at Israel and see it is not conflict — that it can help and that it is strong.”