American students who visited Israel on a special business and technology track as part of the Hillel Global Summit.A revolutionary first-time trip organized by Hillel:The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life for American business students has given them an in-depth view of the world of business and technology in Israel.

The trip was part of the larger recent Hillel Global Summit that brought hundreds of university students to Israel in December. But this was the first time a special business and technology track was mapped out for students with a clear professional orientation, and marked a new direction that Hillel is taking in bringing college and university students to Israel.

“We are working to reach Jewish students and youth that have strong interests other than politics, Israel advocacy, and Jewish education. These subjects are important, but the truth is that the vast majority of Jewish students don’t fit into these categories,” says Danny Shapiro, the assistant director for the Israel on Campus Coalition, who organized and accompanied the group. “We need to be innovative, engage new students regarding Israel in different ways.”

Shapiro, who came to work for Hillel after a stint at America Online, felt it was important for Jewish business students in the United States to be introduced to Israel’s economic and business world, particularly the high-tech sector.

“The goal was to take students – undergrad and grad and MBA students – and expose them to the high-tech world in Israel and help them learn about the business culture and society. It can help them with career opportunities, perhaps encourage them to do business with Israeli companies in the future, but it is also another way to bring or share their love for Israel and communicate about it to friends when they come back to the U.S. campuses. Our goal is to create a more positive Israel atmosphere on campus, beyond mere arguing about the conflict,” Shapiro says.

The group was comprised of 86 students from 45 different campuses on the US campuses. The group included finance, accounting and political science majors, and MBA students as well.

All of the students had been on at least one previous trip to Israel, and all had expressed a desire to go beyond the standard historic and religious sites they had visited, and the political briefings they had listened to and wanted more in-depth briefings in their area of interest.

“So instead of a presentation from the spokesman from the IDF,” Shapiro said, “we brought in someone from the budget department – the financial advisor to the chief of staff – who discussed how the army must struggle with the impact of the economic situation, comparing the effect of cuts in the army in the private sector. We’ve been trying to get more in-depth into a part of the country people don’t know.”

The group discussed Israel’s business economy with leading Israeli venture capitalists, not only hearing them lecture, but dividing into subgroups for workshops. They visited Israel Aircraft Industries, the Tel Aviv stock exchange and a large number of high-tech and biomedical companies – both established businesses and start-ups. They also attended seminars at the Haifa Technion, the Weizmann Institute, and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herziliya, where they met Israeli management students as well.

In the north, they visited various kibbutz factories and participated in a program at the Tefen Industrial Park exploring Israeli entrepreneurship, with leading Israeli industrialists.

Ben Prensky, 20, an accounting student at SUNY Binghamton, had, like the other participants, been to Israel before, but found the trip a completely different experience.

“When you first come on regular trips, you only focus on the sites and the political conflict that’s happening, and you don’t realize what else the country has to offer. We got to look the behind the scenes and see how business is done in Israel. We learned that things are done very differently than at home. Because of the size of the country and its limited market, people don’t think domestically and then globally – right off the bat, they go in thinking globally, so there’s a whole different attitude going into it, and it was important to learn about that kind of orientation.”

Becky Gimble a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Berkeley is studying business and education, and city and regional planning, said that she “came not really sure what to expect.”

“We came with the ambition to simply network. Not only have we had opportunities to network, and drop off our resumes, but we learned an incredible amount. How diverse the technologies are, and how dependent the world is on the technologies that are in Israel. It is so impressive, and such an impressive tool for advocacy on campus. It will be interesting to take this back to Jewish Student Union at Berkeley with a new way of feeling more passion for Israel.”

Asher Epstein, 29, a second-year MBA student at the University of Maryland, came with a significant amount of real-world business experience under his belt. Before pursuing graduate studies, he spent six years working for 3 different companies, working in web development at a start-up as well as a Fortune 500 company.

He said that he came with low expectations, knowing he would be among one of the older participants and because he has been to Israel many times.

“I was blown away, primarily from the quality of programming, and the quality of the presentations that we have participated in. We met with really informed knowledgeable people, who didn’t talk down to us about fluff; but discussed economics, statistics, competitive business environments, helped us be exposed to the variety and understand how this society works, how the economy has evolved.

“People have been open and honest about the challenges that Israel faces, and the problems it still has. It takes time to get solutions implemented, but it is important that the country is recognizing its problems and trying to think strategically for the future.”

With the success of the trip, Hillel is planning future tours that focus on other professional interests of students, such as law and medicine.