Testudo wears an Israeli flag as a cape at Israel Fest 2019. Colleen Crowley/Mitzpeh.

By Colleen Crowley
For Mitzpeh

Camel rides, henna tattoos and the promise of falafel drew crowds of students to McKeldin Mall for this year’s Israel Fest, hosted by the UMD Jewish Student Union and Maryland Hillel on Thursday.

This year’s event fell on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day,  and highlighted the sights, sounds and tastes of the Holy Land.

“Israel Fest is a cultural celebration,” said Sydney Roston, a senior biochemistry and Spanish major and co-president of the JSU. “We like to bring different aspects of Israeli cultural and social life to campus.”

Students made succulents and Dead Sea salt scrubs and treated themselves to massages and henna tattoos. Traditional foods, like falafel, pita, hummus and Israeli salad satisfied the appetites of guests, while Aroma coffee kept students caffeinated.

Information about Birthright Israel, a nonprofit organization that sponsors free trips to people of Jewish heritage, was also available for those interested in exploring their Jewish history.

A bounce house and a silent disco livened up the mall, however, “the biggest draw is riding a camel,” said Paul Shiller, a senior information science major.

Chewy, a Dromedary camel from the Leesburg Animal Park, allowed attendees to gain a new perspective on a brief trip around his paddock. “It’s something that a lot of people don’t get to experience,” Shiller said.

A student goes for a ride on Chewy the camel on McKeldin Mall. Colleen Crowley/Mitzpeh.

For many students, it was their first time experiencing Israeli culture firsthand.

“There are a lot of students on campus who won’t ever have the opportunity to go to Israel,” said Roston. “It’s really fun to bring little pieces of it here.”

Maheen Humayun, a graduate student studying public health, said that learning about Israel’s culture was her main motivation for coming out to the event. “I’m always interested in looking at different cultures and exploring what people are doing in different parts of the world,” Humayun said. “That’s what brings me here.”

Although the event was hosted and cosponsored by many of the university’s Jewish organizations, it was open to students of all faiths. “For all religions, there’s so much history and culture in Israel that it’s really exciting to be able to bring it here,” Roston said.

“I hope students get a feel for the culture of Israel and can appreciate what Israel has to offer,” said Aryeh Roberts, a sophomore philosophy and Jewish studies major. Roberts is vice president of Kedma, one of the event’s cosponsors.  “It’s important to celebrate Israel and its culture,” he said. “I’m happy to be part of that.”

The celebration has been in the works since October, Roston said, but the effort was worth it.“I hope that people just learn a little bit more about Israeli culture and social life,” she said. “We’re really just trying to have a fun time.”

As in previous years, Students for Justice in Palestine hosted the Boycott Israel Fest and Teach-In, where students talked about protecting the human rights of Palestinians. That demonstration took place on the steps of McKeldin Library at 3 p.m. as Israel Fest was wrapping up.


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