About four months ago, we began creating a brand new program called The Jerusalem Ambassadors (JA), in conjunction with Masa, Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.
The goal of the project was to teach the fundamentals of new media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogging platforms), social networking and our unique BOMAH storytelling strategy to international students at Hebrew University.
Our vision was to empower the participants to become part of Jerusalem’s story and to share that story with their circle of friends.
There are thousands of students who come from all over the world to study at Hebrew U in Jerusalem where they experience a unique environment that is different from any other study abroad program. As Shirona, one of the administrators of the Jerusalem Ambassadors program, told me: “When you stop at a stop light you find yourself next to the 3,000 year old Western Wall, and two minutes later when the light turns green you find yourself back in Mamimla Mall, circa 2014.”
The participants in the ambassadors program were chosen carefully, and over the course of one semester they learned about new media strategies and shared their Jerusalem experiences through various social media portals, not only in English but also in Chinese and Spanish as well.
Jean Paul, a student from Mexico, demonstrated the impact his experience in Jerusalem had on him through his writing, pointing out that “One of the most interesting characteristics here in Jerusalem is the awakening curiosity for religions, cultures and languages.”
American student Serena Runyan was just as deeply impacted by the trip: “Jerusalem is a holy city, a bridge between the material and the spiritual. Many would say between the earth and the heavens.”
These descriptions of Jerusalem as seen on the ambassadors’ blog posts may seem obvious to us as Israelis. Yet anyone coming to Israel for the first time is likely to see Jerusalem quite differently than those of us who see it every day – or conversely, those who never visited Jerusalem before in their lives.
It is this unique perspective that we wanted to share with the world, to inspire others to come see firsthand what the Ambassadors had experienced themselves.
Where did this idea come from?
When I came back to Israel after a year of working on behalf of the Jewish Agency in the United States, I moved to Jerusalem. I read that hundreds of thousands of people from the entire world visit Israel’s capital every year. They take pictures at the Western Wall, stroll down Mahane Yehuda market, hang out at the bars downtown; and for the first time, they also encounter the history of the Jewish people – past, present and future – all in one city.
More than once in the course of my lectures, I have heard incredible stories from people who visited Jerusalem, stories that continuously fascinate and amaze me. One time, I dared to ask one of the visitors, “What have you done with your Jerusalem story? Have you told anybody? How did they react?” He answered, as most of the others did after him, that he had had the chance to tell only a limited number of friends and family, and that the spreading of his story had ended there.
I recalled the statistic that people the world over waste an average of three to five hours a day on social networks. Why not use those networks where spend so much time anyway, to tell the stories of our Jerusalem experiences to our audiences online? Nowadays each of us is a source of information, and people can discover Jerusalem in a personal way through their friends’ stories.
Jersualem’s story can be a transformative experience. “We all come from different backgrounds and are in Jerusalem for different reasons, but we can all agree on one thing: we are not leaving Israel the same person as when we arrived,” said Mariessa Shein, one of the Ambassadors on the program.
“Israel, and Jerusalem specifically, has definitely had an impact on all of us and I cannot wait to continue my journey here and see where Israel takes me.”
We, the Jewish people, are champion storytellers. Stories underlie all our holidays, and we are even commanded to “Teach them faithfully to your children” [Deut. 6:7]. To that end, we must work on a strategy of storytelling in new media, and the Jerusalem Ambassadors can hopefully be considered an important first step in that direction.