|Elie Silow-Carroll is flanked by fellow TJJA participants Yeva Dymova and Brett Krutiansky.|
Elie Silow-Carroll just finished battle training in Israel – not for a military confrontation, but for a potential war of words.
The Teaneck High School senior was the only local participant in The Jerusalem Journey Ambassadors, a leadership prep program for Jewish public school teen leaders from across North America sponsored by NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. Now in its second year, TJJA is designed to identify future college campus leaders and help them hone their Israel advocacy skills.
From July 7 to 11, the ambassadors – 15 boys and 20 girls – met with prominent figures and visited key sites in Israel to gain a firsthand understanding of current and ongoing struggles in the country.
“Israel’s most important battles are currently being fought in the battlefield of public opinion, and today we are outmanned and out-armed,” said Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of New York NCSY and creator of the program. “We need to educate teens who will be influential on influential campuses.”
But it was not all work and no play, said Elie. “It’s been a great balance between learning and fun,” he said. “We did a lot of touring, learning history everywhere we went.”
From Eilat at Israel’s southern tip to the Golan Heights in the north, the teens hiked, built rafts, rappelled, went water tubing and did other outdoor activities interspersed with meetings and lectures. “We met with a woman whose son was killed in a terrorist attack,” Elie said. “We spent a day with Neil Lazarus [a British-born Israeli public relations consultant], who taught us how to advocate for Israel via the web; we each made websites in about 10 minutes.”
One field trip took them to Sderot, the southern development town that for nearly a decade has borne the brunt of thousands of missiles launched from Gaza. Guided by Noam Bedein, director of the Sderot Media Center, the young ambassadors were encouraged to use social networking tools for defending Israel.
They saw a large collection of Kassam, Katyusha, and Grad missiles displayed at the Sderot police station; toured a protected playground redesigned to be “Kassam-free”; and took part in a simulated “Code Red” alert during which they were given 15 seconds to seek refuge in a bomb shelter.
After stopping to observe a lookout above the Gaza border crossings where Israeli humanitarian aid is trucked daily into Gaza, the teens visited the Sderot Yeshivat Hesder, where post-high-school Israeli men alternate their military service with Torah studies. Rabbi Dovid Fendel, the head of the modern Orthodox yeshiva, showed them a menorah made of Kassam rocket pieces and declared the town to be “a symbol of hope.”
The group then settled into a hostel in nearby Yerucham, where the teenagers organized and ran a three-day summer camp for 45 children from Sderot, culminating in day-long carnival. Elie said eight years of learning Hebrew at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County left him able to converse with the campers fairly well.
“While most teenage groups don’t even entertain the thought of visiting Sderot, our NCSYers witnessed how moved Sderot residents were because of our decision to come here,” said TJJA Director Rabbi Ben Zion Goldfischer, who made aliyah from Teaneck in 1999. “Our participants have more insight into the conflict and into the psychology of Sderot children.”
Elie gained more than an education on the conflict, however. “I didn’t know anyone coming in,” he said, “and now I’ve met people from all over North America,” including Oregon, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, and Nova Scotia, among other places. In addition, he said, “The advisers really influenced me. At any time, you could talk to them about anything at all, Jewish or secular. I learned so much from them and from the [formal] lectures.”
Alhough many of the participants had never been to Israel before, Elie lived in Jerusalem when he was a toddler and visited again during this eighth-grade year at Schechter. He said his parents, Andrew and Sharon, were fully supportive of his decision to apply to TJJA after he learned about it at a meeting of his high school’s Israel Club. “We thought it was a great opportunity for me to go to Israel and a perfect way to spend the summer.” Elie’s father edits the weekly newspaper New Jersey Jewish News, which is published by United Jewish Communities (UJC) of MetroWest, N.J.
Elie said he has never faced anti-Israel rhetoric at Teaneck High, but he has the impression most of his peers “just don’t know what’s going on in Israel, and the world media always portray Israel in a negative way.”
Newly armed with concrete facts, he therefore does not expect to change minds – only to educate them. “You’re not going to convince somebody [otherwise] who’s against Israel, but if I’m able to take the information I’ve learned here and share it, that’s the main battle.”