This week I just finished guiding a fascinating group of American high school seniors from the Tri-State participating on the “Write On for Israel” mission, expertly organised by Routes Travel. The program is highly regarded two-year Israel advocacy course, sponsored by the Jewish Week of New York, aimed at preparing the participants for the anti-Israel battleground of the North American college world. The applicants are carefully selected after a rigorous interview process. They come from many different backgrounds of religious affiliation, political beliefs and schooling. There is a mix of Jewish day school, public and private school students. The common factor in this pluralistic group is the students’ love of Israel and desire to receive the knowledge and tools to be effective advocates for the Jewish State.

The advocacy training and instruction on the history of Zionism culminates in a week long mission to Israel, where, in addition to touring, the group gets to meet key journalists and IDF officers and soldiers. The intense itinerary focuses on Israel as a modern dynamic society full of rich diversity and invites the participants to both grapple with the issues facing Israel and celebrate Israel’s achievements.

DSC_0896 “Write On for Israel” participants meeting with IDF soldiers in the north

We started in the Golan where we were privileged to meet with soldiers from an elite Infantry brigade. Our group heard from Sgt. J, a Chayal Boded (lone soldier) and one of his officers, Lt. S, a decorated hero. They spoke about “Operation Protective Edge” and how much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and the high moral standards of the IDF. A similar theme was discussed next day during a visit to an Air-Force base during a briefing by the pilots and by a further informal meeting a few days later with lone soldiers at the “Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin” in Jerusalem. The soldiers all shared with our group how proud they were to serve in such a moral and ethical army.

Hearing from the faces “beneath the helmet” deeply moved the students. Not only did it humanise these young defenders of our land, it broke stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Israeli soldier propagated on North American college campuses and throughout Europe.

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“Write on for Israel” participants.  Photo (c) T.Book, 2015

The weather in Israel also broke stereotypes. Who would have thought that we wouldn’t be able to spend Shabbat in Jerusalem because of a snowstorm that closed the city? Instead we got caught in snowstorm at our back-up location in Mitzpe Ramon, which happens to be in the middle of the Negev desert. Only in Israel does one get caught in a snow blizzard in the desert!

Another stereotype was shattered during our visit to “Save a Child’s Heart” (SACH) at the Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon.  The Save a Child’s Heart organisation provides life-saving cardiac surgery and other life saving procedures for children from developing countries free of charge. According to the mission statement on its website (www.saveachildsheart.org) is,

An Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centers of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, colour, gender or financial situation.”

During our visit to the Wolfson Medical Centre we were addressed by the Canadian-Israeli Director of Youth Leadership, an Israeli-Arab Social worker, a Jewish-Israeli Doctor born in Iraq and a Muslim-Palestinian Doctor from the territories who is interning at SACH.  So much for “Apartheid Israel.”

The “Write On” group then went to volunteer at the recuperation center where the children and their parents or caregivers are either preparing or recuperating from the surgery that will allow them to life normal lives. Many of the group were deeply moved and asked why there is so little awareness and appreciation in the outside world for all the good that Israel does for the world.  Daniel Gordis succinctly summed it up when he stated that, in addition to striving for the benefit our own citizens,

This country has become a country, with all of its imperfections, that sees as part of its purpose as looking out for other people.”

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“Save a Child’s Heart”

Frequently, the unplanned moments during an Israel tour become major “learning opportunities.” I was chatting with our bus driver. He told me he was as Christian Arab from Nazareth. I asked the participants, who are all budding journalists, if they would like to interview him. It turns out that he served in the IDF in a combat unit, his sons serve in the IDF. He encourages other Christian Arabs to serve our country, he votes for Likud and is Facebook friends with Bibi. So much for stereotypes!

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Dancing in the Streets of Jerusalem.  Photo: T.Book (c), 2015