Journalism program turns students into activists
‘Write On For Israel’ seeking second cohort from MetroWest area
Members of the MetroWest group taking part in the Write On For Israel program in February in front of the Jerusalem skyline are, from left, front, Abby Aaron, Emily Kamen, Gaby Roth, Carmelle Bargad, and adviser Alex Shapero; and back, Galit Greenberg, Gabrielle Beacken, Lilli DeBode, Scott Myers, Zach Ramsfelder, Jay Zaifman, and Rabbi Shmuel Greene.
Photo courtesy Write On For Israel/NY
September 5, 2012
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.
Common faith, shared trauma
The high school students from MetroWest who took part in the Write On For Israel trip to Israel this past February wrote about their experiences. High school students from MetroWest who took part in the Write On For Israel trip to Israel this past February wrote about their experiences. Here are excerpts from their essays.
Gabrielle Roth described the devastating impact of the rocket bombardment suffered by the population of Sderot.
“Although casualties in Sderot may be minimal, 94 percent of people in the city suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Parents face the reality of not knowing which child to unbuckle from their car seat first when the rocket-warning siren goes off. Citizens of Sderot cannot differentiate between the sounds of rockets and those of lightning. These people need someone to stand outside the shower in case a siren goes off, for they would not be able to hear it within. Citizens of Sderot even take precautions such as refraining from using headphones to listen to music while jogging so they can stay alert.”
Zach Ramsfelder highlighted the lack of conflict so often overlooked by the regular media.
“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. 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.”
Carmelle Israel was infuriated by the fact that Israeli soldiers get described as “war criminals,” despite their efforts to do right.
“The IDF goes to extreme lengths in order to prevent opening fire on civilians. On May 15, 2011 3,000-4,000 Syrian demonstrators marched to the border between Syria and the Golan Heights in order to commemorate “Nakba Day” or “Disaster Day”. Even as they crashed the boarder, the Israeli soldiers in the area held back fire and waited for boarder control units, using non-lethal artillery, to arrive. During the 3-4 hour period of waiting, the soldiers were attacked and beaten by the demonstrators.
Galit Greenberg described how the group brought a commemorative Torah scroll to a family whose son, Erez Deri, died during the Second Lebanon War.
“Mrs. Deri thought of the procession as a marriage. Since Erez had been killed when he was only 22, he had never had the chance to be married, as so many other fallen Israelis have not. The Torah was carried under a huppa, a wedding canopy, the whole way to the synagogue. It is only in Israel where such a ceremony would occur, where a holy scroll could begin to replace the bride a man never had. It is only in a country that is so connected through not only its common faith, but also its constant need for self-defense that a ceremony like this even has to occur. And that is something that sets Israel apart from every other country in the world.”
Jonas Singer talked about the psychological and economic impact on Sderot of living for a decade with a never-ending rocket attacks from Gaza.
“Since the third cease fire in 2001, over 10,000 rockets have been launched towards Sderot and the western Negev; 8,000 of which landed in the city of Sderot, the ‘bomb shelter capital of the world.’ That is nearly three rockets per day! In schools, when young students are asked, ‘Why do snails have shells?’ they reply, ‘The snail’s shell protects it from the Qassam [rockets].’ Noam Bedein, the head of the Sderot Media Center, said, ‘Every woman, child, and family has experienced a rocket explode nearby.’
Lilli DeBode, like her companions, was fascinated by what they encountered in Sderot. She sought to describe the ‘ordinary’ life of a child there.
“It is 7 a.m. Dov, a 10-year-old boy is woken up by his mom and told to get ready for school. Dov, still half asleep, gets dressed, and stumbles downstairs to the kitchen to eat his breakfast. Like most kids, he has orange juice, cereal and milk. Unlike most kids, though, in addition to his breakfast, Dov also takes a tranquilizer pill each morning…. Dov is not the only kid in Sderot taking these pills with his Rice Krispies. Ninety four percent of the children in Sderot need these pills to keep them calm throughout the day because Sderot is not an easy place to be calm in.”