Walking the Talk in Israel Summer Programs

by Zeev Ben-Shahar

These days hundreds of Jewish high school students are signing up for educational summer programs in Israel. Upon their return many will rave about their experience with superlatives such as “life changing,” “amazing,” “best summer of my life.” These are the kinds of words we were hoping to hear from participants who completed the Israel summer program “I Speak Israel” (ISI). Created by two leading Israel education organizations, The David Project and Young Judaea, ISI is one of the first Israel advocacy summer programs offered to North American high school students. The program sought to integrate three central components: Israeli history, Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. Our guiding objective was to teach these components experientially, using the land of Israel as the main classroom. We wanted our students to experience the country not only by touring, hiking and swimming in Israel – but also by getting to know the people of Israel – from the Bedouin in Tel Sheva to the Israeli scout from Beit Hashmonay; from an Arab resident of the Silwan village, to his Jewish neighbor residing five minutes away in a secluded Jewish oasis in East Jerusalem.

When The David Project and Young Judaea set out to create the program last year, we anticipated many educational and logistical challenges we would need to overcome in order to deliver a successful program. The results, we are happy to say, exceeded our expectations. Indeed, many of our participants described their summer in Israel as the best summer of their lives – as a transformative and life-changing experience.

Young Judaea, a premier Zionist youth movement has over 60 years of proven experience in the field of educational summer programs. The David Project, founded in 2002, has delivered Israel education and advocacy programs to thousands of students in hundreds of schools and universities across North America and Israel. Our challenge was to leverage the educational strengths of each organization and to connect between high-level material taught in the classroom and powerful activities experienced on the ground.

For example, to bring to life the Jewish people’s firm connection to the land of Israel, we went to see archaeological evidence of biblical events in the City of David, learn there about the magnificent history of King David, and experience the ancient engineering wonders of Hizkiyahu’s tunnel. At the same time, we met with local residents of the Silwan village who revealed their troubled narratives on the impact that the building of this national park has had on their lives.

It was crucial for us to provide participants with a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the complex reality in Israel, to expose them to Israel’s beauty and flaws, and to allow them to form their own opinions on Israel. Israel advocacy, we told participants, is never about supporting Israel blindly.

We learned in class about common accusations Israel faces today, such as the expansion of settlements or the much-debated security barrier. We then took our students to see the actual terrain of the security barrier, and to meet with residents, both Jewish and Muslim, who live beyond this barrier. Naturally, throughout the program there were times when we feared that we had gone too far in the name of balance and nuance (after all, this program is ultimately about supporting Israel). Adding to our concern was the fact that some of these 16-year-olds were first-timers in Israel. We feel, however, that taking this leap of faith ultimately paid off. In fact, in the post-program evaluations, many of our students noted that understanding the Palestinian perspective actually strengthened their support for Israel. In an article following the program, ISI graduate Annie Davis wrote:

“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.”

Beyond the educational content, ISI was mostly about empowering passionate and courageous youth leaders. Throughout the program we integrated a variety of exercises intended to promote self-reflection and personal responsibility, enhance public speaking and relational skills, and promote youth leadership and activism. Some students took the initiative and sent a petition to the High Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights Council, noting the unfair discrimination against the state of Israel in the UN. Others wrote and published blogs about their personal experience, making their own case for Israel. In the process they were constantly reminded that every one of them makes a difference. As graduate Julia Kahky reminisced in the David Project blog:

“We need to accept the fact that no one is coming to do the job for us… Our job as graduates from “I Speak Israel” is to return home with our own beliefs and advocate for what we believe in.”

Ultimately, I think that what made ISI successful is that we unconditionally believed in these amazing young men and women – in their ability to appreciate complexity, articulate themselves with poise and passion, and lead others and shine. As a mother of one of our graduates noted:

“Todah Rabah to The David Project, Young Judaea, Zeev Ben Shachar, the Madrichim, Israeli scouts and everyone else involved in the “I Speak Israel” program. My son Jacob came home today and told us all about his wonderful, life-changing trip. He is so proud of his Jewishness and Israel – and we are proud of him! I can’t wait to tell others of his wonderful experience and of the high quality of the program.”

And as long as we helped to make another Jewish mother proud, what more can we ask for?

Zeev Ben-Shahar is an Educator/Program Manager with The David Project.