An alumnus’ odyssey in the Holy Land
The advertisement in the Lexington, Ky., Jewish publication read something like this: “Attention recent college graduates! How would you like to come to Israel and work in the upper echelons of the Israeli government in Jerusalem through a program sponsored by the Prime Minister?” Those words began the continuing journey of discovery by Sam Wecker ’07.
Dr. Beth Glazier-McDonald, H.W. Stodghill Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Religion, brought the ad to Wecker after he expressed interest in Israel while taking her course in Biblical Hebrew.
“I had this idea in my head I’d go to Israel after graduating from Centre,” Wecker says. “So it made sense for me to learn the aleph, bet and gimels of Hebrew before pursuing whatever would bring me there. Dr. Glazier-Mac was my go-to person.”
What wasn’t listed in the ad was that the program was accepting Jewish applicants only. The Israel Government Fellows Program (IGF) is under the umbrella of MASA, an organization that provides more than 160 programs in Israel to help outstanding young Jewish adults connect with Israel and establish a “firm commitment to Jewish life.” The organization also provides scholarships.
“Once I discovered the program was for Jewish college graduates exclusively, I began to doubt my chances of getting in,” Wecker says. “Why would the IGF let some Kentucky gentile boy participate in such an exclusive program?
“But Dr. Glazier-Mac thought if I made my case the way I explained it to her, I’d be a shoo-in,” Wecker continues. “So I made a concerted effort, and through recommendations and encouragement from her and President [John] Roush, an exception was made.
“I remember the first phone call I received from Tamar Darmon, the IGF program director. After answering a few questions about why I was so passionate about coming to Israel, she said in a thick Israeli accent, ‘Sam, I can tell we’re going to be best friends.’”
“I knew that if he could get a toe in the door, he would make such an impact that he would be welcomed inside — and so it was,” Glazier-McDonald says. “It took just one interview with the folks at the IGF program for Sam to make the desired splash.
“I also knew that Sam would not be the only one to benefit from his time in Israel,” she continues. “He would touch all those with whom he came into contact … and so it has been. Sam builds bridges.”
After completing the fellows program, Wecker turned to Darmon for advice about his future. She told him about some educational opportunities in counterterrorism in Israel, which led him to enroll in Tel Aviv University’s security and diplomacy master’s program. He found himself back in Israel, this time in Tel Aviv, in October 2010, and completed the master’s program this year.
Wecker’s worldview has grown since arriving in Israel four years ago.
“When I first went to Israel, I was a diehard supporter of the Jewish state, which by default made me an ardent critic of Palestinian politics,” Wecker says. “I had tricked myself into thinking I had some special insight into the region because I’d been reading so many books and articles and following the ‘Jerusalem Post,’ ‘Haaretz’ and ‘Ynetnews.’
“But my black and white outlook was rocked by a dose of reality in the form of incredible journeys throughout Israel and the West Bank, meeting with people on both sides who experienced unimaginable tragedies and live in constant fear of rocket attacks. These experiences trained me to discern propaganda from the facts on both sides,” he continues. “At the start of my journey, my fervor was for the State of Israel. At the end, I realized no state deserves anyone’s fervor and that my passion was for the people — the Jews, the Arabs, the Christians, the Muslims.”
Wecker credits much of his growth to the personal interest Glazier-McDonald takes in her students.
“We keep tabs on each other, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop a lasting connection with a Centre professor in a way that has completely changed my life and continuously challenges my perspective. I even had the honor of speaking about my experiences with a group of Centre students she brought to Israel during CentreTerm 2011 in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Wecker says.
Those experiences, he says, have transformed him.
“I’d say that having gone from being shamelessly ignorant to humbly ignorant has been my greatest achievement,” he says.