How do you connect to a country that is oceans and languages away? In the 21st Century, where can you go to have conversations with or show positive visual images of a country that has been dear to the Jewish soul for more than 2,000 years but the mainstream media continues to portray it as a human rights violator?
The best way to connect with Israel and meet Israelis is to make a visit. Or maybe two. Or live there for a while. Or, maybe move there. But, in the meantime, there is the blessing and the curse of connecting with Israelis and standing up for Israel through social networking.
There are about 13.5 million Jews in the world, give or take depending on who you ask. About half live in the United States, and 6.5 million live in Israel. Both these countries embrace democracy, diversity, religious freedom. In spite of these similarities, time, distance, and language barriers keep the world’s largest Jewish populations from feeling truly connected. Most Jewish Americans know little about modern Israeli life, history or politics. And Israeli counterparts, only know of America from what they see in their media.
Last summer, the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis University published a study called “Still Connected: American Jewish Attitudes About Israel,” The study, conducted in response to media coverage of the Gaza flotilla incident, found that participants aged 45 and under had less of a connected feeling to Israel.
If the Jewish people want to see continuity into future generations and a strong connection to Israel, it’s time that Jews in Israel and Jews in America start talking to each other and the best way is social networking.
In the 1980’s connecting with Israel seemed like a no-brainer. Many Jewish families during this time took a trip to Israel the year a child became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You toured the country with your family and had a ceremony either at the Western Wall or at the top of Masada. These were moments in Jewish family life that forged strong Jewish identities. If you couldn’t make it the year of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, perhaps a trip during high school was in your plans, or a semester or year abroad in Israel.
Then came the intifadas of 1989 and 2000. Along with the death and the terror came the fear and doubt among American Jews how they felt connected to Israel based on what they saw on the news. Reports of terrorist attacks within Israel in 2000 saw tourism to the Jewish state plummet.
I taught Hebrew school to sixth graders that year who told me you had to be “crazy” to want to visit Israel. I asked parents during a family education program if they had anything to share with the students on how they felt about Israel or if they had memories of trips to Israel and I was met with blank stares.
So how to you teach Israel to children who may see Israel as nothing more than a tiny spec on the worldwide map? Again, the answer is through social networking.
I have been a Hebrew School teacher for almost 10 years and have used sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to teach kids young and old about the daily ongoings of Israeli citizens. I have shown my littlest students on YouTube how families in Israel celebrate Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees by singing the same songs we sang in our classroom. For my older students, I downloaded a video on the many faces and places of Israel set to pop song “New Soul” by Israeli singer Yael Naim.
The Internet provides a podium – to stand up for Israel but also provides an equal podium for those to wish to delegitimize the Jewish state. The flotilla that attempted to breach Israel’s blockade around the Gaza Strip launched hundreds of anti and pro Israel Facebook groups, including one I joined, called The Truth about Israel’s Defensive Actions Against the Flotilla The group aims to be online ambassadors to Israel, where supporters of Israel around the world, Jewish or not, can start discussions or point out the way Israel is being covered in the media.
In recent years, I had the opportunity to develop partnerships with Israeli teachers by both visiting and living with Israelis and hosting Israeli visitors to America.
I documented my trip in this video set to the background music of popular Israeli musicians such as The Idan Raichel Project and Shlomo Artzi, who also have Facebook pages. I wanted to show my students and members of my local Jewish community the beauty of Israel and everyday life in this tiny, diverse country. Take a look below:
Another time I empowered social networking to support Israel was during Operation Cast Lead, or Israel’s war on Gaza. During this time, many hateful comments were posted to the photos I posted from Israel on Facebook’s pro-Israel groups. I used discussion boards to request that a typical Israeli write back to me to explain to my 7th grade students what it was like to be in Israel during this time. I got a response from a young man living in Ashdod, not far from the Gaza strip. He was discharged from serving in the IDF from an ankle injury and was happy to help out my cause. In perfect English, he composed a letter to my seventh graders what it was like for he and his family to live under a daily barrage of missiles from Gaza. The email put a personal touch to the headlines that winter and sparked my students desire to make cards for Israeli soldiers.
These are just a few of the many ways ordinary people can stand up for Israel. What can you do?