During an eight-day tour of Israel in February, Mitchell Parker and Ovadia Harary, juniors at Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal, did almost nothing that teen tourists typically do in Israel. There were no ATV trips through the desert or visits to Dead Sea spas, no standard sightseeing or souvenir shopping.
Instead, Mitchell and Ovadia traveled to the borders of Lebanon and Syria, visited the Qalqilya checkpoint in the West Bank, and gained access to restricted army bases and security posts in Israel’s most troubled areas. The teens were among 45 high school students from around the country to participate in a program called Write On For Israel, a project of the Jewish Week of New York that is funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation.
An intensive two-year program, Write On For Israel trains a select group of high school students to become well-informed advocates for Israel through writing, broadcasting, and public speaking, said Linda Scherzer, a former CNN correspondent in Israel who is now director of Write On For Israel/NY.
Students take a series of seminars at Columbia University, taught by educators and journalists, with visits from Israeli officials, IDF officers, and public relations executives. During Presidents Week, the group travels to Israel to gain a first-hand look at the political and security issues of the day. This year’s group met with David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, and Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian correspondent for the newspaper.
In an interview with NJJN, both teens said the trip inspired them in many positive ways. “We slept only four to five hours a night because we had so much to see and do,” said Harary, who lives in West Long Branch with his parents, Jessy and Victor. “It was the trip of a lifetime.”
The teens said they enjoyed delving deep into their favorite fields of Israeli politics and history. “The program gives us an overview of Israeli politics and presents each side of the story so that we mold our own opinions,” said Mitchell, the son of Elaine and Glenn Parker of Oakhurst. “The ultimate goal is that by the time we get to college campuses, we have the resources to express ourselves effectively on Israel’s behalf.”
In the last six years, one or two Hillel students have participated each year in Write On For Israel, said Emily Labaton, a Judaic studies coordinator at the school and adviser for the Write On program. “Programs like Write On help raise the level of discourse about Israel at Hillel,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of anti-Israel sentiment on most college campuses, and young people need to be able to address it in an intelligent way. The views of Write On participants are not all homogenous; some are more to the right, some more to the left. It’s about education, not indoctrination.”
‘Achieve the dream’
Write On gives students the tools to address critical issues facing Israel, said Scherzer, who lives in Closter. “At many universities, including Rutgers, Israel’s detractors have created a toxic environment for the pro-Israel community, blaming Israel for the collapse of peace talks, accusing Israel of war crimes, and failing to acknowledge Israel’s legitimate security concerns or the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility for why the process has failed,” she said.
“While visiting Sderot, we saw thousands of bomb shelters, even a caterpillar-shaped shelter for kids in a playground,” said Mitchell, who said he hopes to study pre-med at Columbia University. “Imagine the psychological problems these children have from living in fear of the constant barrage of missiles from Gaza. Before this trip we saw it on the news, but you never truly experience it until you meet the people and hear the sadness in their voices and their longing for an end to the fighting.”
Ovadia, who said he hopes to study business at the University of Pennsylvania, said the experience heightened his awareness of the necessity to support Israel. “Seeing the places and the people helps put into context what we are advocating. It heightened our need to speak up for Israel because not enough people do it,” he said.
During a visit to Har Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest military cemetery, the Write On group encountered two parents visiting the grave of their son, Erez Deri, who died shortly after a military operation in the West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin. The mother, Pnina, invited the group over to talk about her loss. When she expressed her desire to dedicate a Torah scroll in her son’s name, the Write On members sprang into action. A fund, called Write On For Erez, has been created to help raise $30,000 for a scroll that the Deri family plans to carry in a processional from their home in Ma’aleh Adumim to their synagogue.
“This was a unique opportunity for the group to come together to do something incredibly meaningful for both the Write On students and the Deri family,” said Scherzer. “I have no doubt that these teens will help achieve this dream.”