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Trinity Hillel wins award for multicultural event spotlighting Israel’s Druze community

By Leah Staffin and Emily Wickes

HARTFORD – Trinity College Hillel and the Trinity’s Women and Gender Resource Action  Center [WGRAC] have been named recipients of the Trinity College Most Innovative Program of the Year Award for their co-sponsorship of a week of International Women’s Day events, with guest chef/entrepreneur Naseba Alkesh, a Syrian Druze woman from Israel’s Golan Heights. 

The two groups brought Alkesh to Trinity’s campus for a week-long program celebrating women’s growth and leadership, and exploring feminism and entrepreneurship, after meeting her in August 2019, when Trinity Hillel, with the support of a private foundation, led a group of 17 Trinity College students on a 10-day “Fresh Perspectives” trip to Israel.

Over the course of the 10-day trip, students explored the multi-ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of the Old City of Jerusalem, developed an understanding of the geopolitical challenges on both the Gaza-Israel and Syria-Israel borders, and engaged with Israelis and Palestinians from Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim communities.

Druze Chef Naseba Alkesh cooked dinner alongside Trinity kosher chef Robert Kalmar, for about 200 guests at the Trinity’s Kassow Kosher Eatery.

Lisa Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel and senior associate chaplain for Jewish life, hoped the students come away from this experience with “a deeper understanding and appreciation for the complex and compelling cultural, historical, and political realities that exist there for both Israelis and Palestinians.” 

Accompanying Kassow and the students on the trip were Laura Lockwood, the director of Trinity’s Women and Gender Resource Action Center (WGRAC), and Leah Staffin, the assistant director of Trinity College Hillel.

Along their journey, students had the opportunity to meet journalists, politicians, artists, intellectuals, activists, and other community members. 

Participants were advised to approach the whole experience with open minds. Kinnard Hughes ’22, an economics major, found great personal growth within this experience. “Now that I am back, I am more apt to enter academic and social environments without any strong preconceived notions,” Hughes said.

The group visited Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, the Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and the new Palestinian city of Rawabi. Other highlights of the trip included Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust – a Rainbow LGBTQ tour of Tel Aviv, and musical Shabbat services on the Tel Aviv pier with hundreds of participants as the sun set on the Mediterranean Sea.

The itinerary also included swimming in the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, and eating out at restaurants and markets to sample different kinds of Israeli and Palestinian cuisine. Each dining experience exposed students to different social and cultural customs. 

“One of the best ways to learn about diverse cultures is to share meals and conversation over communal tables,” said Kassow. 

That thinking led Kassow to use the creative medium of food to bring people together as part of Naseba Alkesh’s visit to the Trinity campus.

Among the five program Alkesh and her son Amjad led over the course of their week-long visit, were a Druze feast, reminiscent of the meal shared in her home/restaurant in Buq’ata, Israel. She cooked alongside Trinity kosher chef Robert Kalmar, serving dinner to approximately 200 at the Kassow Kosher Eatery.

Alkesh also served as keynote speaker at WGRAC’s International Women’s Day celebration. She shared her story of starting her own business in a deeply patriarchal society in which she exclusively hires elderly women who have little means of support, fostering a sense of strength and pride. 

At her restaurant, Alkesh teaches classes to international chefs and visitors, and educates diners about the Syrian Druze community. Her son Amjad, a medical resident in Jerusalem, spoke on campus about the Druze culture, history and religion. Rakan Al-zagha ‘22, president of the Muslim Student Association and of Palestinian descent, translated Amjad’s Arabic to English at this event.

Mother and son also met with Hebrew and Arabic professors and students and ended their week’s visit with one of Hillel’s largest Shabbat dinner programs of the year. Trinity students, staff, and faculty assisted Alkesh as she created a feast of nine delicacies in the Hillel kitchen.

The week of cuisine, culture and conversation brought many unlikely partners together to learn about a fascinating and little known aspect of Israeli society.

Emily Wickes and Judie Jacobson contributed to this report.

Main Photo: Naseba AlKesh serves her Druze cuisine to the Trinity Hillel community at the Zachs Hillel House.

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