Sophie Stillman

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Most American college graduates choose to start families, launch careers, and settle down into “adulthood.” University of Minnesota-Twin Cities graduate Sophie Stillman chose a unique path with her winter study abroad experience in Jerusalem catapulting her post-graduate life into that of service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“I realized that if they felt it was my home, and I felt it was my home, then shouldn’t it be my duty to protect it too?” Stillman told the Jewish Star. “Why was it only their responsibility?”

In January 2016, Stillman studied abroad with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem through the Nachshon Project, a unique fellowship opportunity for American college juniors to immerse themselves in Jewish culture firsthand and explore possible careers, graduate studies, and/or leadership opportunities within the Jewish community. The experience resonated with Stillman so deeply she elected to aliyah to Israel post-graduation to serve in the IDF.

“I learned a vast history of our land and our connection to it, culturally and politically. I learned about the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry and have come to understand that neither can survive without the other,” Stillman described her study abroad experience for the Twin Cities JewFolk.

While studying in Jerusalem, Stillman was profoundly impacted by the death of 19-year-old Israeli Border Police Officer Hadar Coden in a Palestinian attack near the Damascus Gate.

“When I learned of the news that afternoon, the first emotion I felt was guilt. Israel is my home, but I’m sitting safe in Israel getting to travel the country, going to the beach, living a great life, while people my age, like Hadar Cohen, are protecting me and everyone else…I decided to take this guilt and turn it into something productive,” Stillman told the Jewish Star.

“I learned what sacrifice is when I met young adults who came from all corners of the world to protect a country they’ve only lived in a couple of months, but whose people they’ve known for a few centuries,” Stillman’s reflections on Twin Cities JewFolk continued. “I learned what true fear is, but I also learned what it means to take that fear and turn it into bravery. I learned that I believe peace is possible when I witnessed a young Israeli Jew gaze into the eyes of his girlfriend, a Palestinian, and truly understand what love is.”

Written by Erin Parfet


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