On August 8, we interviewed Cheryl Aronson, CJP’s Vice President of Israel and Overseas. Cheryl was recently in Israel for two and half weeks, leading CJP’s Follow Me to Israel Institute. In addition, she oversees Taglit-Birthright trips, Onward Israel, which is supported by The Lavine Family Leadership and Service Learning Fund at CJP, and the Myra and Robert Kraft Passport to Israel Program. Cheryl is also the staffer for all of CJP’s work in Israel. We started by asking Cheryl about the participants in her recent trip.
Can you tell us about the Follow Me to Israel Institute and Onward Israel, and their participants?
The cohort for the Follow Me to Israel Institute is typically two lay people and a professional, chosen and recommended by their synagogue. We also interview them. They know that the carrot is the Israel seminar, but we have three programs before they go and when they come back. The primary agenda is Jewish education.
The purpose of Onward Israel is to have an educational, deeper immersive experience primarily for Birthright alumni who are underclassmen, to align their interests with an Israel experience and to say to them, in terms of building your life and your future and your future career, Israel is a place that you can use as a laboratory for change. You can be a partner in both helping and doing service in Israel, but also gaining an important skillset for yourself, life experience and work experience. We have specific modules that CJP provides, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, that include Jewish education – learning more about what it means to be Jewish, and Israel advocacy – preparation to get you to get back on campus, and eight-week individual internships.
What’s the message we send to people in Israel when we bring people from Boston over there? What effect did the current situation have?
I think there are different messages going on. We were there specifically to partner with Israel, to strengthen our Jewish community and our Jewish education agenda. That’s our ongoing work; that has to be our focus. The fact that we had very little drop off from Onward Israel and other programs means that people had the sense that, even though there was a crisis going on, they could still fulfill the goals we were trying to achieve.
On the other hand, the crisis actually had a profound inspirational effect on people because Israelis came together in the most incredible ways. Every person I met or knew in Israel was doing something, some selfless act to inspire community, to help those who were suffering. Our own Onward Israel cohort decided to raise money on their own – this was their own idea – for Golani Brigade soldiers who got called up and had to fight the war. I don’t know anyone in Israel that wasn’t cooking something for soldiers, that wasn’t making something because they have to go out there, they have to go in, and they can’t take care of even their most basic needs. It was a moment of unity that I can’t even begin to express.
Yes, as we know, about 95% of the people in Israel are supportive of Operation Protective Edge, but at the funerals for the lone soldiers, what was the feeling of the attendees there? Did they feel the same way?
I’ve been to Israel so many times, long term experiences and short term ones, so many that I don’t count anymore. But I do speak the language and I was very cognizant of the situation. When I was in Haifa, running the Follow Me to Israel Institute, I received the message that there was a mother from Texas who had lost her son, Sean, who was a lone soldier, and she was concerned that no one would come to his funeral. The funeral was happening at 11pm. I went to the funeral, and 20,000 people had showed up. Every Israeli was saying the same thing, which was: A lone soldier can never be alone. Lone soldiers aren’t a separate entity, as if we have this army that’s a separate part of society. Every person has to serve. Every person is expected to serve their country so that their mothers, and their children, and their brothers, and their sisters can sleep at night, and everyone is a part of this small country’s larger family. At the funeral, as solemn as it was, there was also a sense of incredible community. I want to be very clear - there was not one person who was saying, “I’m so happy that human lives are being lost on the other side.”
People came to another lone soldier’s funeral, which was Max’s funeral, who was a Birthright alum. There were hundreds of people going to the shiva. There were about 30,000 people at that funeral. Hundreds of strangers came to pay respects to the family to show that we care. The message I want to bring over and over is we care about life. Life is the most important thing to us; children are the most important thing to us, having a future is the most important thing to us. We do not glorify death. We glorify creation and human life.
What are you hearing from participants, now that they’re back in the United States, about their experiences? Can you talk about the follow-up that happens now?
I want to be clear that the students did not want to come home. Neither did the participants. They felt safe; they felt like [Israel] has my back as a civilian. The programs are so professionally run that they can change minute to minute to make sure that safety and security are dealt with in appropriate ways.
At CJP we do something that is very unique—we created the Follow Me to Israel Institute action plan that participants can take back with them as follow up for the next 18 months. We also have the students volunteering to be ambassadors. They have already posted on social media, and you can see some of those postings on the Israel Campus Roundtable site. Also, we have people who have already signed up to come back on their campus and to be helpful for us both with recruitment for Birthright and Israel Advocacy as speakers. Everybody wants to do something, everybody wants to get engaged, and we’re already meeting to share our plans for the Follow Me To Israel Institute in September. We’re aiming to implement our action plan right at the High Holiday time.
On a day-to-day basis, did you have to be prepared to change the itinerary for your latest trip?
Always. That is the rule anyway of any Israel program – you always have to be prepared to change the itinerary at all moments. I think that’s why people put their trust in Israel experience programs. We have wonderful partners to work with and so much confidence that that’s what happens. In Israel there’s such a sophisticated way of running programs. There’s essentially a communication center that coordinates with all arms of Israel, police, and IDF, and the education arm of the country. So, if something is even questionable at a particular moment, you can at the drop of a hat change the itinerary. On this trip, we changed the itinerary even more than we usually do, but we were able to have a quality educational experience.
Do you think Birthright trips this summer have been different compared to previous ones?
You know, yes and no. I would say that some of the itineraries did change, but they can always change anyway. I think that you could not help but feel the general commitment of Israelis for the love of their family members. Every Israeli that you met was serving in some capacity in something that’s challenging or even dangerous. There’s no way of escaping that profound feeling of both the vulnerability and the opportunity to be a part of this in some way, to want to strengthen your personal connection to Israel or be involved communally on some level. There’s no way to not feel that especially during this time.
What can people here in the U.S. do here to help Israel?
I would say that social media is very important. Also, really, really getting out there and writing positive stories, presenting personally, transparent positive images of Israel that are authentic. Unfortunately, that is so often blocked because for whatever reason in the media, it’s not appreciated and gets ignored. I think that having people being vigilant about that is extremely important on the ground. Flooding the media and the market, and social media with positive images of Israel that are real, that are true, that are compelling, that are inspirational and exciting are critical.
In addition to talking to friends about the positive components of Israel, I want to stress the importance of physically going to Israel to Israelis and to strengthening our relationship. If people have the opportunity to go, they should go. There is nothing worse than feeling deserted by the greater Jewish community as an Israeli. If you went to Israel, know someone who went to Israel, even during this time, and you know they had a positive experience, go out there and promote that.
What are your final thoughts on this most recent experience?
I have so much absolute admiration for Israelis as a people, more so than I ever had before. Not only are they resilient but they are so giving. They are so compassionate. They love life, and they love children. I think that it reminds me what we’re all about in the Jewish community; we should be about creating light in the world. That’s our purpose. That’s what we’re here for. As someone who really believes that, I feel very inspired that having a connection with Israel is part of that journey. It’s part of that joint mission to create life – to create light – wherever we can by making contributions to the world. At the same time we can only do that if we’re living in a safe environment and if we’re allowed to live. Both have to go hand together.