When the flight crews of El Al Airlines take off from Israel they travel with the message that their homeland is a place where diversity thrives.
A sampling of the country’s multi-culturalism landed at the George Street Student Activities Center on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus Nov. 28, when a pilot and five flight attendants spoke about a range of topics, from their everyday lives in Israel to their favorite cities abroad.
“Many people misunderstand the concept of Israel,” said flight attendant Fares Saed, who is Druze. “Many people, when they think Israel, think of ‘Jewish’ and ‘conflict with Arabs.’ Israel has other communities.
“I really want to live in Israel and be part of this amazing thing called Israel.”
Saed, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, said Israel was all about “democracy and liberalism.”
“I meet many times Christians who come, and they don’t know that there are Arabs who feel they want to be a part of that,” he said.
The six are part of the Blue and White El Al Ambassadors project, a new initiative through which airline representatives go into Jewish communities in the Diaspora in an effort to deliver a more positive image of Israel, Daniel Saadon, El Al’s vice president for North and Central America, told NJJN.
The program was cosponsored by Rutgers Hillel, El Al, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Stand With Us, an organization dedicated to ensuring Israel’s side of the story is told on campuses.
Rutgers was chosen to host the program thanks to the urging of Lihi Rothschild, its Jewish Agency for Israel fellow, Saadon said, as the crowd of 200 at the Raritan River lounge perused material laid out on tables before settling into chairs outfitted to resemble El Al airplane seats.
Ambassadors program director Alon Futterman, who is also JAFI shlihut (emissaries) development director, said El Al employees were chosen because they are “our most engaging, interesting, and worldly people.”
Rutgers was selected as the second site of the program, he said, not only “because we heard wonderful things about this Hillel and its staff” but also because of incidents on campus the previous year with the pro-Palestinian community.
“We wanted to engage students about Israel in a non-Arab conflict setting,” said Futterman, a native of Ashkelon whose father, Rabbi Matt Futterman, served as religious leader at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge before making aliya.
‘A righteous country’
Gilad Greengold, an openly gay flight attendant who lives with his partner in Tel Aviv, said while he was proud to represent his country, there was little he had to do to convince those on return flights to consider another visit to Israel. “When these tourists come back they are glowing,” he said.
Like Greengold, flight attendant Chai Elyass is openly gay and lives with his partner in an atmosphere of acceptance. “It’s great to be gay in Israel,” he said. “The gay nightlife in Israel is even better than in New York.”
Many on the panel were college or graduate students who juggle class and study time around international flight schedules.
Flight attendant Shiran Nakash, the only female on the panel, said there are times she has raced to class with her luggage straight from a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles.
“It is a little embarrassing,” she admitted. “But I was a cheerleader.”
The former aerobics instructor and flight instructor in the IDF also said her job gives her “a lot of opportunity to do good deeds — like help an old lady who is alone and take her to the rest room. I am able to be there for someone in their time of need,” Nakash said.
Yuval Warshavsky, a flight attendant whose grandparents made aliya from Boston, said he thought the Zionism that inspired them was changing. No longer focused on settling the country, it is centered rather on “making Israel a better country — more liberal, more justice.”
“We should set an example for being more humanitarian and a righteous country,” he said.
Along that line, pilot Assaf Levy said he believes Israel has yet to fulfill its potential with regard to such arenas as health care and education, with some issues being placed on the back burner as attention and funds are focused on the never-ending military needs.
“I think there is more a sense of urgency” about such issues, he said. “I think this is what the protests of the last summer were about,” he said, referring to the demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets to protest the rise in housing costs and the deterioration of public services. “I think we as citizens must bring pressure for change.”
Referring to the “Occupy” movement in New York and elsewhere, Levy, a former yoga instructor, said, “This atmosphere is all over the world. We have brought this to you.”