This month, our organization StandWithUs is celebrating the graduation of our 1,000th Israeli Fellow. To appreciate what a historic moment this is, let me take you back to 2006.
As missiles were flying into Israel’s north from Hizbollah positions in Lebanon, my wife and I were packing our bags and preparing to make Aliyah. Were we crazy? Excited? Immune to the potential dangers? Who knows, but we were always confident that we were making the right decision.
And yet, a conversation I had with someone working for an Israeli diaspora organization left me feeling uncomfortable.
“Zionism is dead”, he had told me before my Aliyah. “It’s a dirty word”. He went on to describe how those bent on Israel’s destruction had hijacked the word and that the Israel organization he worked for was contemplating removing it from their materials. This was far from being the only downhearted comment that I heard in the Summer of 2006, right up until we stepped off the plane into Ben Gurion Airport and the officer at Passport Control greeted me with the cheery question, “Why you come?”
Zionism isn’t dead: My friend was wrong. One of my first assignments for StandWithUs was to travel the country and interview hundreds of Israeli students who had applied for our nationwide Israeli Fellowship Program. We were on the lookout for personable, passionate, talented young Israelis who we could help empower to be future ambassadors and leaders of their country.
And that’s when it happened. One by one they entered the room, Israelis in their mid-twenties from every part of the country and from every background imaginable: Sabras, Russian-born, Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouins, Anglo olim, Kibbutznikim, Israeli-Arabs and so on. They were as diverse a microcosm of the country as they could be; coming from across the political and religious spectrum, but one thing linked them together: their love of Israel, their Zionism.
Zionism wasn’t a dirty word, it was a positive symbol, an aspiration and the touchstone which most of these Israeli students referred to. And in those interviews, conducted a short time after the Second Lebanon War had ended (many of these students had just returned home from the frontline), they spoke of that experience. They articulated, better than any spokesman I have heard, an Israel resolute in its need for security but relentless in its desire for peace.
In the years since, we have had the pleasure of interacting with hundreds and hundreds of Israeli young adults. In addition to their study and training with us, each of our campus groups initiates a large-scale project to elevate Israel’s image in the world.
These young Israelis have the will and desire to stand up and be counted and to step up and represent their country. Public diplomacy and the cultivating of people-to-people relationships has never been more important.
I wish I could introduce you personally to all of the 1,000 graduates of our student ambassador programs, chosen from thousands of applications, who have taken part in the program over the last seven years. You are invited to join us and meet many of them at our upcoming event.
Since I can’t introduce you to all of them, meet just a few of our next-generation Israeli leaders and Zionist ambassadors: they are the pride of Israel.
Ophir was an outstanding Fellow and student who, while studying at Tel Aviv University, won a Rector’s Award. Following his participation in our 2008 Fellowship program, he went on to lead our campus work there and followed that by becoming our very own director of the Fellowship program. He was also sent to America to make presentations about his own personal experience being Israeli and having served in the IDF.
Ophir went from public diplomacy to official diplomacy and he currently works in the Legal Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Speaking about his experience, he said ”StandWithUs was a life-changing experience for me. I learnt how to represent Israel to audiences and it allowed me to meet wonderful people from all over the world, but especially to meet inspiring young Israelis. The program encouraged us to take leadership roles in our society”.
Asked in a TV interview what she would say to someone who alleges that Israel is ‘apartheid’, Ranya was blunt: “It is one of 2 cases: either he is lying or he doesn’t know what Apartheid is”.
When asked why she joined StandWithUs, Ranya, an Israeli Druze who was born in Maghar village in northern Israel said: ”It’s my country, it’s natural to join StandWithUs to defend and best represent my country”. Ranya joined the Fellowship in 2010 and took part in a StandWithUs speaking delegation which visited dozens of campuses and communities on the US West Coast and Pacific NorthWest.
A member of President Shimon Peres Youth Forum, Ranya says: “StandWithUs gives you the facts and the tools to help you change our reality into a better future, each in their own way – it’s not only for Israel, but also for peace!”
Born to an Australian family who made Aliyah to Israel, Jonnie joined our Fellowship program at Bar Ilan University in 2009 and rose up the ranks to be our Regional Executive, leading StandWithUs campus activity. Jonnie’s heart is in the Far East and he was part of one of our Fellows most ambitious pro-Israel campus projects: a mission to China to promote cultural and academic links with Israel.
In freezing conditions, Jonnie’s StandWithUs group held an Israeli photo exhibition in Harbin near the site of one of the largest Ice and Snow Festivals in the world, which was opened by the city’s Governor as well as the Israeli Ambassador to China. Jonnie also presented to students about Judaism and Israel at Heilongjiang University.
Jonnie is now playing an important role in arguably one of the most important initiatives in the Jewish world – he is Special Advisor to the CEO of Taglit-Birthright Israel.
When we first met Noa, she had already served her country with excellence as an IDF Captain, as a spokesperson and later as Head of the North American Desk in the Strategic Division. Noa graduated the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship in 2009.
Intelligent and charismatic, Noa recently completed being a shlicha – an emissary – for the Jewish Agency to the Hillel of George Washington University in Washington DC.
She says: “The StandWithUs Fellowship is the best thing Israeli advocacy can ask for: young, bright, creative and motivated students initiate and execute a project that shows the incredibly diverse facets of Israel. As someone who is extremely passionate about supporting Israel, and who has been working in the realm of Israeli advocacy for over a decade, I find the work of StandWithUs in general, and the Fellowship program in particular, inspiring. I feel privileged to have taken part in this program and to be one of the alumni.”
While politicians in Israel were busy this year trying to get people to vote for them, Ofir was more concerned that Israelis participate in their democracy. Ofir is Executive Director of Mitpakdim, a cross-party organization set up by young adults to try and initiate long-term, strategic change in the Israeli political system that will help policy and governmental decision-making.
Getting people to stand up and be involved is a trait that we identified in Ofir when he joined the first year of our Fellowship back in 2007 and something he has demonstrated ever since. He was Chairman of the IDC Herzliya Student Union, is a lawyer and he served as a Captain in COGAT, the IDF unit that liaises with the Palestinians and non-governmental organizations. Now, Ofir is focused on getting his Fellow Israelis active for the betterment of their country.
When Israelis from Beersheva to Tel Aviv found themselves under attack from Hamas missiles last year, Leora was in Australia. More than just empathizing with her brothers and sisters back home, she helped lead a solidarity campaign that spread from Down Under across the world. As JAFI Shaliach to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, Leora’s campaign for people to post photos of themselves on social media wearing red was a clever way of reminding the world that up to a million Israelis were taking cover at any moment when the Red Alert sounded.
Leora cites her training in the Fellowship and being part of this community of young ambassadors as something that contributed, and continues to contribute, to her life. She is, she says, proud to be part of a group of “caring, creative and talented student leaders that work to create a better future in Israel and the work for Israel’s positive image in the world”. By running campaigns in Australia and New Zealand, she is bringing the students she comes into contact with closer to Israel from afar.
Gili’s studies at university were constantly disrupted by the sound of ‘Code Red’ alarms and rockets falling. She is a graduate of the Sapir College School of Communications near Sderot and well within the firing line of Hamas rockets from Gaza.
Like many of her fellow students, Gili remained there and persevered, helping guide our missions to Israel and exposing people to the reality of daily life under fire.
A former Strategic Planner at McCann Erickson Israel she told me: ”The Fellowship allowed me to gain extensive experience in managing and marketing of a grassroots project for Israel. It contributed immensely to my personal and professional growth.”
For Yaniv, participation in the Fellowship from 2008 was a springboard for leadership opportunities that awaited him.
Following his participation in our Hebrew University program he was accepted to the prestigious Sauvé Scholars program at McGill University in Canada and went on to graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
On campus, Yaniv’s leadership and public diplomacy instincts shone and he was a founding member of the inaugural Harvard Israel Conference.
He continues to affect change in the Jewish world and beyond as a Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
Chaya Esther Pomeranz
Born in Los Angeles, Chaya Esther is a high achiever and we recognized that when she was selected to take part in our 2011 Fellowship program at Bar Ilan University. She is President of the Israeli Model UN Association and a Member of the Global ACCESS Steering Committee at the AJC.
Chaya Esther played a leading role in bringing top award-winning European science students to Israel as part of a conference the StandWithUs Fellows of Bar Ilan University held to showcase Israeli pioneering in nanotechnology.
Her most recent achievement took place this week: she was co-opted to serve as Chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students. We wish her much luck and anticipate her success.
You can learn more about the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship here and you are invited to join VIP guests and keynote speaker Israeli Paralympic Gold Medalist Noam Gershony at the celebration, the graduation of the 1000th Israeli Fellow on June 17th, 2013.
The StandWithUs Israel Fellowship is one of many successful StandWithUs international programs, dedicated to supporting Israel around the world.