Jonathan Emont – a 2008 graduate of Ridgewood High School who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center – always has felt a deep attachment to the state of Israel.
Still, the 23-year-old said, he never expected that country to be at the center of his professional life.
Things changed, however, when the recent Swarthmore College graduate went to Israel on a tour the America-Israel Friendship League offered to young journalists.
“I did journalism in college,” he said, explaining that although he majored in history, he also was the editor of Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette.
Taking advantage of the League’s offer of a free trip, Mr. Emont set off for Israel “and got a really good perspective on how many Israelis see security issues.” While he was there, he also went to the West Bank to meet some Palestinians who knew his friend, fellow Swarthmore student Sam Sussman.
The trip had a profound influence on the young journalist.
“It was really valuable to hear both sides,” he said.
“I started thinking about how to make sure that more American Jews have this opportunity to meet Palestinians and hear their perspective.”
Together with Mr. Sussman, Mr. Emont founded Extend in May 2013 to accomplish that goal, and this Friday, February 21, he will talk about the group’s work during Kabbalat Shabbat service at Temple Israel.
As Extend’s co-director, Mr. Emont travels to Israel several times a year to bring groups of young American Jews together with diverse groups of Israelis and Palestinians for five days.
“We ran the first tour last June, the second in August, and the third this January,” Mr. Emont said.
While the group began with a website and initially spread the word through Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, Hillel leaders, college JStreet chapters, and some Birthright Israel coordinators, “it’s easier [to attract participants] now because we’ve had some press and have an alumni network that recommends the trip to friends,” he said. So far, about 45 students have traveled with his organization.
While most would-be participants are young – the group targets Jewish students between the ages of 18 and 26 – Mr. Emont has been surprised to receive email queries from older people as well.
“We’re getting tons of emails from people interested in coming on future tours,” he said. “Some are from older American Jews, who are too old for Birthright but want to learn more.”
The cost of the trip is $200, which covers transit fees, room, and board. Since it is assumed that participants already will be in Israel – for example, they may choose to travel with Extend after attending a Birthright program – there are no fees for air travel. About 50 percent of Extend participants come from Birthright.
Pointing out that Extend has no formal relationship with Birthright, Mr. Emont said that “a lot of students don’t come in that way. They’re looking for additional opportunities in the Holy Land. We see ourselves as a good option for students who want to learn more about the fundamental issues.”
Because Extend does not yet have any backing from foundations, its funding comes from local communities.
“A lot of students have started fundraising at their synagogues,” Mr. Emont said, noting that he has received some money from the Ridgewood community. “So many American Jews understand that there are two peoples who feel a deep attachment [to the land of Israel]. They think it’s important for young Jews to hear from both sides.”
His own trip, he said, “gave him an opportunity to understand the complexity of the issue and to see how important American Jews are in helping to solve” some of the issues. “That’s when I saw the role I could play.”
Mr. Emont said he does not receive a salary for his work with Extend, although the organization covers his travel expenses. To make a living, he cobbles together a number of jobs. Among other things, he writes freelance articles about Israeli-Palestinian issues, works at Jewish Home Lifecare in the Bronx, helping to prepare underprivileged students for their Regents exams, and works in afterschool programs with recent immigrants.
“If I was doing it to make money, then I’m a bad businessman,” he joked.
“This was born of a deep passion. I really want to ensure that young American Jews have an opportunity to meet Israelis and Palestinians across the political spectrum and to understand how both sides connect to the land. They’re not always given that opportunity. I worry that the American Jewish community won’t play as productive a role as it can if it doesn’t have more information.”
Mr. Emont believes he has already accomplished a lot in giving the 45 Extend alumni a chance to meet so many different people, such as “local protest leaders, Palestinian Authority figures who might have nothing in common with grassroots leaders, former Israeli soldiers, and settlers.”
He said that many trip participants have come back and worked with the Open Hillel campaign, a student-run initiative “to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels.”
Finding Palestinians to meet with has been “the easiest and most seamless part” of his efforts, he said, “since many are extremely eager to speak with American Jews, partly out of curiosity and because they know we matter, but often don’t know how.”
Mr. Emont stressed, however, that his organization “doesn’t reach out to groups that advocate violence on either side.”
Trip participant Rachel Unger, a student at Wesleyan who is studying in Haifa, said in an email that “as a young American Jewish college student traveling to Israel for the first time, Extend added tremendous educational value to my experience.
“Every day we met Palestinians and Israelis, activists and politicians, settlers and villagers, who one by one overturned everything we thought we knew for years or learned the day before. We heard at least 10 different opinions every day.”
“Most importantly,” she continued, “we had the chance to meet and talk to people who were directly bearing the burden of the occupation…. Everyone we met was so grateful for the opportunity to tell their story and told us one after another, ‘tell your friends and family at home. America has the power to change this, but no one is listening to our stories.’
“The tour left me with a deep desire to learn more and to dedicate myself to promoting a peaceful future in the region.”
|Who: Jonathan Emont
What: Will give a talk on competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives
Where: Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood
When: At Kabbalat Shabbat Services, tonight, beginning at 8:30 p.m.
More information: Call Temple Israel, (201) 444-9320.