Annie Davis

Learning to lead with I Speak Israel

Whenever I think back on the past month, I feel as though the wind has been knocked out of me. Those four weeks were a period of more personal growth and self-discovery than the four years I spent in high school. I was intellectually and emotionally challenged in ways I never thought possible. Most of all, I was inspired to make my mark on the world. All this was the result of one program: I Speak Israel.

I Speak Israel (ISI), the first Israel summer program for teenagers that combines tourism with Israel advocacy, is the joint effort of Young Judaea, a youth movement that seeks to build Jewish identity and Zionist commitment in American Jewish youth and young adults; and The David Project, a non-profit organization that shapes campus opinion on Israel by educating, training, and empowering student leaders to be thoughtful, strategic and persuasive advocates.

ISI was launched this summer, and I am fortunate to have been one of its first guinea pigs. Twenty other teens and I traveled from the Negev to the Golan and participated in daily classes on the Arab-Israeli conflict, advocacy, and current events.

Though the itinerary included such standard sites as Sde Boker and the Kotel, ISI often took us off the beaten track. We toured Sderot, met with MK Isaac “Buji” Herzog, and were invited to our bus driver’s house.

ISI at sheltered playground in Sderot (photo credit: courtesy)
ISI at sheltered playground in Sderot (photo credit: courtesy)

At Project Better Place and Save a Child’s Heart, we witnessed Israel’s commitment to improving the world – while the poverty in Tel Sheva and the suffering in Silwan exposed us to the darker side of Israeli society. We learned about the tensions between Jews and minorities, between haredi and secular Israelis, and the haves and have-nots.

As the days passed, I came to appreciate the complexity of Israel’s situation. Rather than brainwashing me, ISI forced me to scrupulously reexamine my beliefs, think independently, and form my own conclusions. The outcome was a deeper, more mature understanding of Israeli society. No more do I naively perceive Israel as flawless. Instead, I regard it as an imperfect state that defends itself and its identity more honorably than would any other country in similar circumstances. This nuanced view is, I think, essential for effective and informed advocacy. Yet it can also be confusing. On the whole, ISI has left me with far more questions than answers – as well as a thirst to learn more.

More than anything, however, ISI was empowering. One month ago, I did not consider myself a leader. I thought it was both my fate and desire to follow others, and I had resigned myself to being a silent bystander. ISI changed that. The madrihim — Amit Foa, Cegal Ilan, and Zeev Ben-Shachar — continually reinforced the idea that every person has the power to change the world. Through activities and interactions with the rest of the group, I discovered that I have what it takes to make people listen. ISI imbibed me with Israeli chutzpah. I began to speak out, to challenge people with whom I disagreed. I know now that I have always been capable of leading. I just lacked the necessary willpower – which ISI has since given me.

I now want to make a difference. I want to embrace the challenge of standing up for my convictions. When I begin college in two weeks, I want to use the advocacy skills I learned on ISI to make the case for Israel on campus. I want to proudly display an Israeli flag in my dorm and have the courage to explain why it is there.

The David Project’s tagline is “educating voices for Israel.” Author and lecturer (once at Harvard and currently at the IDC Herzliya) Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar once said, “An imperfect voice is better than perfect silence.” I believe ISI has taken me a step further. It has made me the perfect voice.