Exploring Israel this past February, Gaby Roth was stunned by the terrible stress described by people living in the rocket-blasted city of Sderot.
For Zach Ramsfelder, on the other hand, traveling with Roth and 58 other American teenagers, the biggest surprise was just how normal life in Israel can be.
Roth and Ramsfelder are among the 11 local youngsters who took part in Write On For Israel, a 10-year-old program that teaches Israel advocacy using the tools of journalism. As members of the first cohort from the MetroWest New Jersey area, local participants took part in a two-year program that included seminars on Israel and Jewish history, training in how to communicate with a wider audience, and the eight-day trip to Israel.
With the current cohort wrapping up and the application deadline approaching for the next cohort (see box, page 17), participants spoke and wrote about what they learned in the process.
Roth, 17, of North Caldwell told NJ Jewish News that the program had “drastically enhanced” her writing skills, especially her persuasive ones. She had been to Israel four previous times, but the Write On experience, she said, “definitely changed my opinions.”
“I used to be ignorant about the situation in Israel and the Middle East; however, now I feel a desire, almost an obligation (in a good sense) to defend the State of Israel whenever I hear or see it being challenged,” she said.
What made it so powerful, she added, were the speakers they heard from, including advocacy trainer Neil Lazarus, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, and Israeli Consul General in New York Ido Aharoni.
She also praised the college students who served as mentors.
“My adviser, Alex Shapero, is one of the smartest people I have ever met and I feel lucky to be able to receive his input about the conflict, and about my writing,” she said.
The program was founded in 2002 by The Jewish Week, the Manhattan-based weekly. It is run locally in collaboration with the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life.
It is funded with help from Milly Iris and family, the Cooperman Family Fund for a Jewish Future, Peter Feinberg, Amy Holtz, Michael Simon, and the AVI CHAI Foundation. Those accepted into the program pay just $1,500.
“The CRC, in collaboration with The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, wants to ensure that all Greater MetroWest students are inspired and prepared with effective skills when they begin their college experience,” wrote Gordon Haas, chair of the CRC, in a blog post about the program. “Participants learn from top leaders in the country on how to be proactive and how to handle a wide range of situations that could occur on campus.”
Over the two-year span, in sessions held at Columbia University in New York, the participants hear from a range of speakers, take part in workshops, and work on shared projects. On the Israel trip, they get to talk with ordinary families, teachers and journalists, government officials and military officers, and media and business professionals.
Even after their specific program ends, the participants remain a part of the WOFI family. In June, they were invited to meet with author Elie Wiesel at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan at an event celebrating WOFI’s 10th anniversary.
“We are committed to staying in touch with our alumni and offering support, resources, and tools to promote Israel advocacy on college campuses,” said Linda Scherzer, the program’s executive director.
For young journalists, the strangest lesson is that sometimes no story is actually the biggest story of all. A “commander in the West Bank, a Scottish oleh, said that no one gave anyone else much trouble, and that most interaction between Israelis and Palestinians took place when both Israelis and Palestinians went shopping in a nearby mall,” Ramsfelder wrote in a blog post. “He recounted a situation in which he helped a Palestinian farmer recover a goat that had been stolen from him by local boys. It all sounded so surreal, because it seemed…almost normal.”
How to apply:
Qualified high school juniors are invited to apply for the fellowship. The application deadline for the 2012-14 program is Friday, Sept. 14, at noon. To learn more, visit jfedgmw.org or contact Linda Scherzer at 977-613-8739 or Linda.firstname.lastname@example.org.