Arielle Stambler, a 2010 graduate of Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights and a junior at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., recently returned from a six-week archaeological dig in Ashkelon, Israel. Ilana Polster, who graduated early, in 2011, from Shaker Heights High School and is a freshman at Princeton University in New Jersey, is back in the United States following eight months of volunteer work, including three in Morocco and five in Israel.

Both Shaker Heights residents have shared new insight from their journeys.

Stambler, who went on the dig through Harvard Summer School, was a Cleveland Jewish News teen reporter and participated in Write On for Israel, a two-year advocacy program that was co-sponsored by @Akiva, CJN and the AVI CHAI Foundation.

“Two years after ‘graduating’ from Write On for Israel, the importance of my Israel advocacy training is finally beginning to hit home for me,” Stambler wrote. “Throughout my junior and senior years of high school, WOFI taught me about the ways in which anti-Israel sentiments might manifest themselves on a college campus and how to use journalism and other student media to advocate for Israel in the face of those challenges.” Her bond with Israel strengthened during WOFI’s 10-day trip to the country a year into the program, she said, and afterward, she yearned for a deeper connection.

“And so, this summer I returned to Israel on the Leon Levy Archaeological Expedition to Ashkelon, a southern city 11 miles from the Gaza Strip,” said Stambler, an English major and reporter for the Yale Daily News Magazine. The schedule was grueling, she said. “We woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m., dug for eight hours with pickaxes and turiyas (large hoes used to scoop dirt into buckets)…and spent the afternoons washing and processing the pottery discovered that morning.”

At 9:45 p.m. June 23, during week two of the dig, the tenor of the trip changed after rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward Ashkelon, she said. Fortunately, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system stopped the rockets’ progress. “But the booms shattered the mental peace of some participants.”

In her analysis of the conflict, Stambler draws several conclusions. “After having such a visceral, terrifying and thought-provoking experience in Israel, I came to the conclusion, in my heart of hearts, I am proud to feel like a part of the Israeli nation by virtue of being Jewish, proud to support this country through thick and thin. But at the same time, I am more saddened than ever by the complexity of the situation.”

Stambler’s complete comments are available on www.cjn.org.

Polster brought back lessons from her eight months abroad.

“I graduated high school early and spent the second half of my senior year volunteering abroad in Morocco,” Polster wrote for the Career Israel blog. “I returned home when my three-month visa expired, but decided that I wanted to continue volunteering abroad before heading to college.”

“I spent the past summer working towards my emergency medical technician license with the plan of volunteering in ambulances overseas. After my experience in Morocco, I was relatively certain that I wanted to return to the Middle East. I initially chose Israel purely for language reasons – I have a decent comprehension of Hebrew, and communication plays a central role in ambulance work.”

In Israel, Polster volunteered for Magen David Adom ambulance services. Polster, who is studying international relations at Princeton, is one of 1,200 young adults placed in internships through the Career Israel project of the Israel Experience Ltd.

“Ilana is the youngest participant that Career Israel has ever accepted,” said Rachel Sales, director of marketing with Israel Experience.

“In my past few months with MDA, I have been able to see a wider spectrum of the Israeli population than most of my friends,” Polster wrote. “I like being able to get an unvarnished view of the country and its issues, and feel like I have learned just as much about the social and political situation in Israel as about its health care system. Also, there really is nothing like riding an ambulance down a highway at 4 a.m. while blasting techno music.

“As a 19-year-old, I can’t really tell you what my career path will be. I am very interested in the relationships and negotiations between countries, and hope to work in some kind of international field, possibly with a focus on the Middle East. For this reason, I really enjoyed Masa Israel’s security and diplomacy seminar. It was a great way to learn more about regional issues and to work on negotiation skills.

“Unlike many of my friends on Career Israel, making aliyah (at least immediately) was never an option for me – I still have four years of college to complete. As the end of my program approaches, I know that I will leave Israel. And I also know that I’ll be back.”

SHABBAT SING: The Agnon School will host a “Shabbat Sing” from 8:30 to 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 12, for children 18 months to age 5. The free, open program also is designed for the parents or caregivers of such children.

Agnon is at 26500 Shaker Blvd. in Beachwood. In Shabbat Sing, participants celebrate the spirit of Shabbat with other families. Children sing, move and learn about Shabbat with special blessings, rituals, challah and grape juice.

Contact Cathy Schreiber, director of early childhood, at 216-464-4055, ext. 128 or cschreiber@agnon.org.


A Reflection on My WOFI Training

Arielle Stambler

August 2012

Two years after “graduating” from Write on for Israel (WOFI) Cleveland, the importance of my Israel advocacy training is finally beginning to hit home for me.

Throughout my junior and senior years of high school, WOFI taught me about the ways in which anti-Israel sentiments might manifest themselves on a college campus and how to use journalism and other student media to advocate for Israel in the face of those challenges. The first year of the program culminated in a ten-day trip to Israel, my maiden voyage to the country. While there, I befriended Israeli soldiers, saw a bomb-proof playground in Sderot six months after Operation Cast Lead, made my pilgrimage to the Western Wall, lost myself in the back alleys of Tel Aviv on a scavenger hunt, and learned what life on a kibbutz was like. Along the way, WOFI arranged numerous meetings with journalists who could show us how advocacy works in Israeli media.

I came to Israel that summer with a loyalty that sprung primarily from a Jewish upbringing. However, as the country I had been learning to defend all year blossomed into reality before my very eyes, I learned to love it for my own personal reasons. Its epic 5,000-year history intrigued me. The cultural blending of Jerusalem amazed me. And to this day, I can still recall the sweet smell of the Arab Market in the Old City (incense and cramped passageways and spices I can’t name). I left Israel yearning for a connection to the land that was deeper and more intimate. I felt there was just too much to learn.

And so, this summer I returned to Israel on the Leon Levy Archaeological Expedition to Ashkelon, a southern city 11 miles from the Gaza Strip. A month after the end of the dig, I am already beginning to romanticize the grueling dig schedule. We woke up every morning at 4:30 am, dug for 8 hours with pickaxes and turiyas (large hoes used to scoop vast amounts of dirt into buckets to be moved off-site), and spent the afternoons washing and processing the pottery discovered that morning. I was reading James Michener’s The Source at the time, a history of the Jewish people. The book imagines life on fictional Tell Makor at each layer of its occupation, beginning with cavemen discovering agriculture and ending with the Israeli War of Independence. Even though Ashkelon is best known for its layers of Philistine as opposed to Jewish Biblical settlement, I still felt like Michener’s protagonists. I felt like I was uncovering a history that I was deeply connected to, a history that WOFI had originally allowed me to fathom.

And then in dig week two, the tenor of our stay in Israel changed drastically. Around 9:45 pm on the night of June 23, five rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward Ashkelon. I was just drifting into the light haze of the dream world’s first moments, cocooned from the sounds of reality by my earplugs, when the Color Red siren blared. Immediately following, I heard four or five sonic booms—window-rattling rumbles that shook me to the core. Someone opened the door to my room suddenly and in the light that flooded in from the hallway, I could see that everyone was gathering outside. I yanked open the curtains to see what was going on and, observing nothing unusual from my window, ran out of the room, my adrenaline suddenly pounding like a sledgehammer on my heart.

Out in the hallway, people were handling the hysteria of the moment in different ways. There was some nervous snickering, some irritation that much-needed sleep had been disturbed, and a lot of deer-in-the-headlights faces. Most people seemed to be doing everything possible to control the fear rising up into their flushed cheeks. One of the boys across the hall from me was telling the story of what he had just seen to everyone who would listen.

“I saw the Iron Dome take them out!” he exclaimed. “The rockets and the Iron Dome collided in the sky over the ocean. It looked like giant fireworks. It was so huge and close to us.”

The collision had been bright, he told us, so bright that it lit up his entire south-facing room like a gigantic light bulb giving off its last gasp of energy the moment before it burns out.

One of the grid supervisors came through the hallways trying to calm us down. No one was hurt because the Iron Dome, Israel’s newest defense technology that can meet missiles fired from Gaza in the air and cancel them out when they are headed for densely populated residential areas, had worked. The Dan Gardens Hotel where we were staying had merely acted as a shock absorber for the vibrations caused by the collision of the Iron Dome and the rockets in the air. It was still standing as tall and defiant as before, and so was the entire city of Ashkelon. But the booms shattered the mental peace of some participants. Two volunteers went home the next day and our dig director laid out a plan for all of us to move north if a ceasefire was not quickly established.

I have studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years in high school classes, through WOFI, through the American media that makes Israel seem like a domineering military force out to cut down the underdog, through a childhood spent with Israeli Hebrew School teachers seven hours a week, through a general sense that I am Jewish and therefore have a vested interest in the rights of the state of Israel throughout this conflict. In other words, I realized that I had been experiencing the conflict all my life from afar. But that night, I finally understood how real and pressing it truly is. I felt it in my feet on the trembling ground, in my hands that desperately fumbled to pull my earplugs out and stick glasses on my face, in my heart that was pumping adrenaline like a water turbine. Regardless of whether or not anyone on the dig was injured, someone in the very region where I took my breaths was affected by the rockets in some way, and whoever was driven to fire the rockets in the first place was already hurting very badly.

The day after the rocket attacks, we returned to digging as usual. I was discussing the situation with another volunteer while working, and suddenly he said point-blank that he thought the British had made a mistake in creating Israel. I stopped pick-axing mid-swing, revving all my WOFI arguments up in my mind. Here were the classic points I was prepared to make: First of all, the Jews already owned the majority of the land they were settling on when Israel came into existence because they had previously bought it from the Arabs fair and square. In addition, it is an undeniable historical fact that the Jews have always been the best stewards of the land, and today under the Israeli government, the holy sites of each major monotheistic religion are open to members of those faiths without question. Israel is also a necessary, stable democratic force in the ever-turbulent Middle East, a state that the U.S. needs in order to further its own interests in the region. And then there are the less politically-centered arguments: Few groups of people have suffered under the shadow of persecution as long as the Jews have because of their unique position as a people in exile, and so it is only fair that they be allowed, at long last, to return to the refuge that is biblically and archaeologically proven to have been their homeland.

I think the notion held by my friend—that “Israel was a mistake”—stems from Israel’s unfortunate portrayal in mainstream media. With every Palestinian rocket fired on Israel comes an IDF retaliation as a form of deterrence, but that defense tends to negatively brand Israel as a Goliath ruthlessly employing a disproportionate amount of force upon the Palestinians. Palestinian civilians deserve the serenity of life not under the shadow of Israeli military dominance, but until Hamas ends all attempts to garner support and attention for its position through violent attacks on Israel and reigns in its extremist population—in other words, until the Palestinians as a nation recognize Israel’s right to exist— its people will not get that serenity. Israel cannot be asked to commit suicide by not defending itself if it is attacked or provoked. More media sources need to recognize this fact, and if mainstream media cannot be changed, programs like WOFI need to continue to counteract such negative branding of Israel.

The most important event of the week, however, was the blessed fact that, this time, the Iron Dome had worked and that the existence of the Iron Dome is changing the calculus of Palestinian militants trying to determine the benefit of even sending a rocket at all. Ultimately, however, this conflict can only be resolved once both sides (and all nonpartisans) accept Israel’s permanent stake in the Middle East and its positive influence in the region. Only then can we all stop labeling ourselves as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Only then can we come under the much more functional and effective belief heading, the only one that will ever move the region in the right direction: pro-peace.

After having such a visceral, terrifying, and thought-provoking experience in Israel, I came to the conclusion that, in my heart of hearts, I am proud to feel like a part of the Israeli nation by virtue of being Jewish, proud to support this country though thick and thin. But at the same time, I am more saddened than ever by the complexity of the situation. As I learned firsthand from digging through Israeli soil for six weeks this summer, the Middle East has been a battleground since the days of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, countless Roman emperors and even more Crusader knights have left their destruction layers and charred remains in the archaeological record of the Levant. When will we learn our lesson and evolve past these territorial disputes in this region? When will there be peace throughout this rugged, barren center of the world? When will violence here be a distant memory, the remnants of which surface only in the hands of determined archaeologists picking through the ancient dust? When?

WOFI taught me how to ask those questions. More importantly, though, it taught me how to begin to answer them.

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