Monday, March 19, 2012

Travel Blog #2 - Teens 4 Israel New York Trip

I just got back form our unforgettable Teens 4 Israel Advocacy trip to New York city.  The Omaha Teens did so much in such a short time, the biggest challenge was taking it all in.
On Friday morning after breakfast we met in an office on Wall Street for our program with The Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).  But the teens were not informed as to who we were meeting with.

We sat down in a conference room and I told the teens that i had arranged for an interview with a journalist.  A young woman entered the room and introduced herself as a journalist for the New England Middle East Journal.  She started out by asking the kids where they were from and the purpose of their trip.  after a short time she started challenging them on how they could support Israel despite all of the terrible things that Israel does?  The kids were at first confused, but as the questions became more accusatory the teens began to engage her in a heated discussion that soon escalated into an argument.  After a time that was probably no longer than 15 minutes the woman said, "I think I have enough for my article." and abruptly left the room.  A minute later she returned and introduced herself as Judith Rachel, intern for CAMERA.

I had seen programs like this before, once regarding Christian missionaries, where someone pretends to be the opposition.  But Judith's portrayal of the anti Israel journalist was so convincing that even though I was in on the secret I was ready to punch her in the face.  She through ever bit of classic anti Israel rhetoric at the teens, she brought in her emotions, and she even intimidated them with subtle insults and aggressive body language.  The program was maybe 15 minutes but it felt like 2 hours to me, and several times I had to hold myself back from ending the program in the middle because I thought it was too intense for the teens to handle.

While the Omaha teens were drawn into the clever tricks that Judith wanted to demonstrate, I was incredibly proud of them.  Some kids were drawing from their own arsenal of facts about the conflict that we learned together at Teens 4 Israel programs to debate with her, while others tried to turn the tables on Judith by challenging her premise that Israel's enemies were strictly the victims in the conflict. 

What Judith demonstrated was that 1.) facts don't always work in an argument because the "journalist" countered with made up "facts" of her own that she was able to put forth with enough confidence that the teens took for granted that they were real.  And 2.) it was impossible to turn the tables on Judith.  Whereas she created an atmosphere where the Jewish teens felt that they had to answer for any policy of the Israeli government as if it were their fault, while she was simply an unbiased third party in the conflict just reporting on the situation.

The program had some other aspects that Judith pointed out in the discussion that ensued.  When we finished, Judith spoke about how she got involved in Israel advocacy.  She was at Brooklyn college, a school with thousands of Jews, but since it was a commuter school there was no pro Israel presence.  She had never been involved in Israel advocacy before, but when an anti Israel group formed on campus she felt that she had to do something and she formed her own pro Israel group.  She is now in graduate school, continuing her Israel advocacy work on campus and interning for CAMERA.

We also met with CAMERA's head curriculum coordinator.  She introduced us to some of the programs that CAMERA does for teens and college students.  We looked at articles that were recently in publications like the New York Times about Israel.  She showed us how headlines, pictures, captions, and even the structure of an article can be deceptive.  Naama, our community Shelicha and the other chaperon on the trip, was so impressed with the program she took samples back and she is going to start running these programs for kids in Omaha.

Then we met with the head of CAMERA's letter writing department.  She gave us an inspirational speech about how we can get involved in Israel advocacy and practical things that the teens could start doing immediately. 

I am so grateful to CAMERA for setting this up for us.  They are an amazing organization and our time with them was the highlight of the trip for many of the teens.

From CAMERA we went to Teaneck, NJ where we were going to spend Shabbat. 

(editors note: we had two speakers on Friday that we had to cut out because of technical difficulties.  I mention them here only so that others who want to replicate this program learn from a logistical error on my part.  I rented a van that was to be our transportation and had budgeted money for parking in the city.  Unfortunately I learned the hard way that parking garages will NOT accept anything larger than a mini van.  Because of this we had to take subways and buses which took large unscheduled chunks out of our days.  Many thanks to Yeshiva University for storing our van during the trip for no charge.)

I was very excited about Shabbat in Teaneck.  For one, Teaneck is an incredibly pro Israel community.  There are over 20 shuls in the area and every week representatives of all types of institutions in Israel come to spend Shabbat at the different shuls to raise money for Israel.  Millions of dollars are raised every year from Teaneck for the Jewish state.  Also, in Teaneck there are so many incredible pro Israel professionals and lay people, many of whom wanted to share their experiences and wisdom with our Teens 4 Israel group.  And finally, I grew up in Teaneck and I was very proud to introduce my Omaha teens to the place where I lived as a teen and to the people and institutions that inspired me to be a proud advocate of Israel and a proud Jew.

Home hospitality was arranged for us by the local NCSY youth group professional.  I have to tell an incident that occurred just to give you an idea of what kind of community Teaneck is. 
An hour before Shabbat, the busiest time of the week, we arrived at what I thought was the home of the family that agreed to host four of our girls.  The girls and I showed up at the house with all their bags and I knocked on the front door.  A Jewish lady answered and I asked, "is this 34 elm street?"  "No."  She replied.  "This is 28."  She looked at the girls and their luggage and then immediately added, "But do you need extra beds?"
The girls and I were absolutely floored.  Here she did not know who we were or why we were here.  She saw some Jews before shabbat with luggage and without hesitation offered us a place to stay if we needed it.  That spirit of welcoming in guests was what I grew up with in my own home and it makes me proud to come from a community that takes that Jewish value so seriously.

Eventually, I got all the teens to the right homes with plenty of time to get ready for a great shabbat.

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