Category: Strategy At Work

Viral Social Media Strategy

What we learned trying to create an international holiday.


The Made in Jerusalem team learned a whole lot trying to create International Firgun Day.  “Firgun” is a Hebrew word of Yiddish origin that defines the selfless feeling of enjoying another person’s success.  Made in Jerusalem set out to create this holiday where people write compliments and selfless praise to each other on social media.

JLM3To create this viral holiday, we had an all-night marketing “hackathon” throughout the night before and into the morning of July 17th.  We invited hundreds of people from the community and categorized participants into teams that were formed around a list of marketing challenges that included getting celebrities to mention #FirgunDay or getting content far up on Reddit.

Along the way we experienced both success and some speed bumps.  In terms of getting people engaged with a project campaign, here’s what we learned:


What Doesn’t Work:

1.     Emailing People You Don’t Know

We emailed hundreds of organizations aligned with the themes of Firgun Day for sponsorship or advertising.  Just 5% responded with interest in helping, but half of that group did nothing after that. Instead of finding random organizations, we learned that entering networks where you know members personally gives you more leverage.

2.     Asking People to Invite Their Friends

Many people loved our idea and joined the event page, but few invited their friends. People are generally hesitant to invite their friends for fear of spamming, so even people who did want to help did little sharing. The best way to encourage people to engage their friends is to do so indirectly by framing it as “if you like this and want to help spread the word, feel free to share.”


What Works:

1.     Personal Engagement

The most effective social media strategy is engaging people you know. 90% of those contacted through Facebook joined our event, and they were far more likely to invite their friends. On Twitter, targeting small influencers was the best strategy: people and groups with fewer than 5000 followers more often responded or retweeted us than did celebrities and big corporations.

2.     Create an Event

MadeinJLM’s hackathon was a big event for people to network, collaborate, and showcase their skills and talents. People participated because they were dedicated to our cause of global optimism.  The night yielded apps, videos, and articles, and more. After the virtual dust cleared, #FirgunDay got many mentions online from people and groups that the MadeinJLM team had never heard of – even an Israeli military radio station mentioned Firgun Day!  Having an event with a variety of people expands your networks and increases the number of people you can inform.

3.     Something Fun

One of the biggest successes of our campaign was the Firgunator, a website app that generates hilarious compliments for users. The app is intelligently designed to share the content, as creator Uriel Shuraki created buttons for instantly Tweeting, Posting, or snapping a screenshot of the Firgun generation.  It was a success because people knew they’d see something new every time they clicked the button, and many users engaged with it repeatedly.

So there you have it.  May the force be with you, and we will see you on Firgun Day 2015.

Strategies like the hackathon are to use when looking to promote a bigger event, like Firgun Day. This strategy can be used by anyone, especially when trying to promote a good cause.

Allison Rumsas and Libby Snyder contributed to this post.

A Trust I’ve Never Before Had To Realize

While on my Masa Israel Journey program, I decided to make Aliyah. I landed a great full-time job, registered for Ulpan, and found an apartment in the trendy, and heavily American, German Colony in Jerusalem. Last week, my first week post-program, was amazing and that dreaded “transition to being on your own” was a piece of cake, chocolate Marzipan cake of course. Week two came, and it came with my first Code Red siren; a new disturbance to my new confident On-My-Own mentality. It seemed like with the end to my program and the disappearance of a pre-planned daily schedule and the transparent care of my directors, my safety ended as well. All I wanted was to call my Director at Yahel – Israel Service Learning and ask her to make the missiles stop!

I was at a concert outside of the Old City with some friends last week during the first siren. Everyone knew that the country was facing activity that day and while we were all constantly checking the latest updates on our I-phones, we weren’t going to abandon the concert tickets we purchased out of fear of something that might not even disturb the night’s events. Trying to provide constant comfort to my parents back in the states, I sent this picture with the caption “Safe in Jerusalem – at a concert!”


Nefesh Yehudi Concert Old City, Jerusalem minutes before a siren

3 minutes later, sirens went off. The concert was shut down and everyone raced home. The rest of the night was quiet although if a siren went off, I’m not sure I would have heard it over the volume of that heart was beating.

My anxiety about Operation Protective Edge pretty much ended that night. Reading articles and engaging in conversations with Israelis gives me comfort and enables me to be more informed. Restaurants, stores, and public transportation all operate normally, and continue to do so 5 minutes after a siren stops. My Israeli friends are calm and go about their daily lives without fear or worry. No meetings or classes are canceled. I worried before thinking about the situation, because I felt like I should; because that was what I did when I was back in the states and when I didn’t hear about people grocery shopping, laying out in parks, and going to school on the news. Needless to say, I’ve started reading more Israeli news articles than American ones.

Down town Jerusalem, last week, the evening after a siren

Other sirens have gone off since this first one and luckily I haven’t been by myself during them. The composure of the people around me, the amount of shelter-selfies taken, and the sense of community prominent during these times, all allow me to take these sirens as a 5-minute disturbances to my day.

So, what’s my reality during Operation Protective Edge? My ears and eyes are alert, my phone provides me with updated notifications, I regularly call family members and I give an extra big smile of appreciation to the guard on the train. I grab coffee at Aroma on my way to my office in Musrara, Jerusalem and I meet a client or two throughout the day. Ironically, I work at an Israeli start-up that specializes in social media and much of our energy goes towards explaining our Israel experiences. In the evenings, I have been going to Ulpan and meeting up with friends.

I am well aware that unlike many other areas in Israel, Jerusalem to this point in the operation has seen very few missiles. I also know that these sirens are not simply disturbances and that they are serious threats. However, my “keep on trucking” mentality is the result of a trust, I’ve never before had to realize. I trust my Israeli friends around me, the individuals patrolling the streets, and the IDF, specifically the technology of the Iron Domes. Forgetting Hamas for just a minute, I think about that trust and how THAT, not necessarily experiencing the sirens, has made me just a little bit more Israeli.

Me with my fellow Masa participants at Tel Nof Air Force Base, Iron Dome behind us

Me with my fellow Masa participants at Tel Nof Air Force Base, Iron Dome behind us

The Red (Alert) Wedding

“The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish
future. That is why Israel must always have the ability
to defend itself, against any threat.”
-Benjamin Netanyahu

Everything was perfect. Down to the last flower petal. The beautiful sunshine cast perfect shadows, the tinkling laughter amongst the guests as they moved down the buffet, the soft sounds of classic songs playing in the background, the stuff dreams are made of. The bride was glowing in her gorgeous white gown as she smiled for photos with her friends as the groom dressed neatly in his navy suit was greeting his friends who had come from halfway across the world. The scene was taken from a fairy tale. Everything was truly perfect.

There was an electricity in the air, an intense energy that can’t really be explained. People stayed close to their friends and everyone tightly clutched their phone as if it could save them from some unknown force.

Certainly a memorable wedding!

Certainly a memorable wedding!

The ceremony went off without a hitch. The beautiful couple was married before their friends and family as planned with spurts of music and dancing to separate the various parts of the traditional blessings. Some loud planes passed overhead and the tension rose, but only for a moment. The sun set slowly over the hills as two became one and moved forward to a new phase in life.

The crowd shuffled slowly towards the tent where the reception was to be held. The clinking of silverware on china and lighthearted chatter filled the room as the guests sat down to eat their appetizers that were quickly forgotten as the bride and groom entered and the dancing began. Despite the situation, people were all too willing to let it all go to bring joy to the beautiful new couple. The first round of dancing finished and the crowd filed back to their tables for dinner and of course, to check their phones.

And then it happened. The cause for all the tension, the reason for the slight edge in the air, the reason to stay close to a phone suddenly became reality as a sharp sound pierced the air. It was the sound we had all feared. A moment of hesitation, a quick glance around, the sudden realization that the beautifully decorated tent would protect no one, a slight feeling of panic and then as if moving as one, the guests ducked under the tables. Laughter, not screaming, the ultimate expression of utter surprise even though this reality had seemed so inevitable just a minute ago. There was no way to properly prepare for this moment, to know how one would react or what the natural instinct would be. It was in this moment, in this incredible moment of combined joy and fear, that I experienced my first Code Red siren.

A friend grabbed my arm and pulled me under the table, and on the way down I of course grabbed my phone. As all twelve table members tried to fit under the table the true signs of our generation emerged. “Can you get a picture? My arms aren’t long enough!” “C’mon guys- code red selfie- it doesn’t get more interesting that this!” I of course was not innocent in the slightest as I worked to update my Facebook status while also trying to keep my head from hitting the table top. “Hang on, aren’t we in a tent?” asked my friend with his mouth full after somehow managing to bring his plate down under the table with him. “Um, yeah. Hence the no running for the safe room.” “So why are we under a table? If we get hit we are dead anyways.” A quick hush fell amongst us as we considered this reality and as the siren stopped ringing in our ears, instead of staying down for the required ten minute reprieve to ensure the rocket had already fallen we scramble from under the table and rushed outside. If we were going to die anyway, we may as well watch the scene unfold.

We stood in the grass, huddled together for no reason other than the comfort of someone familiar nearby and searched the skies. “There,” said a guest, and silence fell as we watched the bright orange light in the sky grow larger as it approached. A rocket was flying towards our area and all we could do was watch.

A second light appeared in the sky, then a third and a fourth. Four rockets. Four rockets aimed at the center of the country with the intent to cause as much damage to property and human life as possible. Four rockets were headed towards a beautiful wedding, an event meant to be the most joyous occasion in the lives of the two people we were there to celebrate that night.

“Wait…Look!” Another guest, squinting furiously gestured towards the four new lights that had appeared, moving quickly towards the four rockets. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Four explosions. Four showers of bright orange sparks. And then nothing. It was over just like that. I stood in the grass tightly gripping the hand of a friend, my mouth gaping slightly as I began to process what I had just witnessed. The Iron Dome and the incredible soldiers of the IDF had just shot down the rockets that could very well have taken the wedding celebration to an entirely different place.

A cheer ripped through the crowd and a round of applause for the miracle we had just experienced as our adrenaline levels began to return to normal. As we turned to re-enter the tent people began to call their loved ones to check in and tell them of the incredible scene that had just played out on what should have been a regular wedding on an average Tuesday night in early July.

I stood frozen in my spot unsure of how to feel or react. So this is what it felt like. This is what it meant. This is what the residents living in the south of Israel experienced every time the siren went off as a rocket was fired from Gaza with the intent of causing as much damage as possible. Teetering on the edge of panic I took a deep breath and returned to the tent and of course, to my phone to update my Facebook status with the incredible story I had just experienced.

A hasty status typed with shaking hands..

A hasty status typed with shaking hands..

I returned home that evening, just an hour’s drive away and heard from my roommates about their siren experience, running to stand in the stairwell of our apartment building because we do not have a proper safe room. A neighborly gathering, meeting new faces and greeting old friends as everyone tries to stay calm for the sake of the children who are hiding in their mother’s arms.

After exchanging stories and a quick round of phone calls I tried to sleep feeling utterly exhausted and completely drained. I tried to sleep. I really did. But sleep wouldn’t come. I could not get comfortable. I kept tossing and turning, rolling over to check my phone for updates, peeling my ears for the unforgettable, piercing sound that would have me once again running for cover.

This is life as an innocent civilian, a friend, a neighbor, a student, a new immigrant living with the fear of rockets falling on me, my friends and my family. This is life in Israel where the government and the IDF will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of its citizens first. This is life where we hope and pray that the need for violence will end so our soldiers can come home. This is life where the center of the country finally understands the suffering of the citizens in the south. This is life where we will continue to fight until quiet can be properly restored and we can continue developing this incredible country we live in.

This is life with Hamas in your backyard. This is like under terror.

May we merit to see the end of the violence quickly with the assurance that the quiet will endure. Stay safe and keep praying for our soldiers.

“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror,
victory however long and hard the road may be;
for without victory, there is no survival”
-Winston Churchill

Vision, Determination, and Action

[su_intro]I am a Zionist activist who has been helping Israel’s image for the past six years abroad and in Israel.[/su_intro]

I made aliya from within Israel this past September 2012, one week before Rosh Hashana, since I have been living in the country for the past three years. My vision was to help improve Israel’s image to the world and I set out on a quest to fulfill that wish.

I was born in the United States in New York and raised in France for 10 years. I wanted to make aliya and settle in Israel because I found myself for the first time feeling at home among my fellow Jewish companions. I have always felt the Zionist pull to Israel ever since I did Taglit Birthright and fell in love with the country; also due to the fact that I always loved the Jewish traditions and customs practiced at home in the states and France.

While living in France, I witnessed various anti-Semitic acts such as Arabs spray-painting swastikas and some Arabs throwing rocks at Jews while going to synagogue. My non-Jewish friends would make fun of me for being Jewish in school, which was very uncomfortable. That experience made me realize how different I am and led me to be very curious about what it means to be a Jew.

While I was studying, I became more aware of the constant media bias against Israel as I viewed the atrocities caused by suicide bombings and rocket attacks on the civilian population. I decided to try to help Israel’s image while constantly remaining up-to-date with the conflict. On Facebook, I have been making new groups, including “Peace for Israel,” “Stand against Terrorism” and “Pro-Israel Activists Unite,” totaling 8,000 members, to help people around the world receive the news and truth about the conflict in Israel. At Drew University in New Jersey, I was the Hillel president where I initiated various Pro-Israel events to demonstrate to students the complexities of the Arab/Israeli conflict, such as hosting guest speakers like Israeli political analysts and Israeli consulate spokespeople to discuss the core issues facing Israel. Finally, I changed the university’s study abroad policy to allow students to study in Israel.

Following my personal battle to help Israel, I decided to enter into a Master’s Degree program at Tel Aviv University; however, I needed more experience within Israeli politics. I became involved in several projects all designed either to help Israel’s image in some way or to help new immigrants. One is World Magshimei Herut, an aliya and support organization founded in 1999. Another is Hadar Israel, a grassroots non-profit organization that encourages international dialogue and a third is the Gloria Center for Global Affairs, based at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. I helped to create a joint China/Israel event at the IDC to foster ties between both countries by bringing politicians and business leaders together to discuss topics relevant to both countries. In the meantime, I have helped Philippe Karsenty with his struggle to show the true story behind the Mohammad Al-Dura case in 2000 by providing him with different locations to appear as a guest speaker. With his PowerPoint presentation and speaking abilities, he helped to show the world that the Palestinians used the fabricated death of Al-Dura to launch a media attack against the State of Israel.

In order to get practical working experience while becoming familiar with the Israeli political and diplomatic arenas, I volunteered in the Knesset working in the Likud party. I aided former deputy minister Ayoob Kara with strengthening his ties to Evangelical Christian American groups and politicians in the US. Also, I used my French skills to acquire contacts for him in French-speaking African countries and among European politicians. During the second flotilla crisis in 2011, I aided the Foreign Ministry and the Gloria Center and a new pro-Israel initiative called Like for Israel which set up a communications room in Hertzliya to distribute accurate information in many different international languages about the threat of breaching the blockade and why the Gaza blockade is crucial for the safety and security for the State of Israel. Finally, during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, where Israel launched a military operation in Gaza to stop the terror rocket attacks in the south, I volunteered with the Ministry of Hasbara. I aided them with translating government documents from English to French while distributing the crucial information to Jewish centers in France.

Recently, after making aliya and completing my MA in Conflict Resolution from Tel Aviv University, I was very involved with the general elections of 2013. I helped the Likud party promote their agenda. Meanwhile, I have attended numerous political and Hasbara related events all around Israel including the President’s Conference and Hertzliya Conference from the IDC in order to learn more about the conflict and make new connections. I have helped different initiatives in Israel including raising awareness of the plight of the Jewish refugees from the Arab world and the peace process using my PowerPoint skills, research skills, and speaking skill to educate students and pro Israel Activists about these particular issues.

I found my passion in life, which is to assist the country in its struggle for a positive public image to the world.

I realized that I have a duty, as a Jew who studied the Jewish and Middle Eastern history, witnessed firsthand anti-Semitism, and is a Zionist who cared for the only Jewish state, to give all of my time and effort to help Israel in its ongoing quest to portray itself as a light unto the nations. I look forward to working harder and longer in this never ending quest of helping the Jewish state defend itself from the media onslaught, improving Israel’s image around the world, and strengthening the diaspora Jewish connection to Israel.

It’s Not Marketing, It’s Storytelling.

[su_intro]Imagine that worldwide everybody can share their own story and everybody can see it.[/su_intro]

Well this is todays reality; we now have the ability to spread culture and knowledge through storytelling online.

The possibilities are limitless and the outcome could be great. No longer will the education of future generations be constrained by geographic or cultural boundaries, because sharing your story with the world is as easy as typing some words and clicking a button. The beauty is that it is your story. It is something real, something personal and something that is true to you. Storytelling not only allows you to go back and recall past experiences, your narrative shapes and influences the perspective of your readers.

As part of my 5-month internship here in Israel with BOMAH – The Brand of Milk and Honey, I learned how to harness the power of storytelling. BOMAH uses storytelling as a new strategy to positively re-brand Israel online and fight against Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movements on campuses. The best way to fight against negative content being produced in the online world is by sharing things that are positive and personal. I’m talking, of course, about telling your story.

There is no one way to share your story.

It can be as simple as posting on Facebook or keeping a blog. I decided to tell my story in the form of an interactive program called Tour Builder. Tour Builder uses Google Earth to show people the places you’ve visited and the experiences you had along the way. It allows you to choose locations, add photos, text, and video, and then share your creation. Using this program, I created a representation of my life, my journey in Israel, and the work I’ve done with BOMAH.

Josh’s Story on TourBuilder

More Than I Bargained For

[su_intro]It was the summer of 2005 at eleven years old in the back of my dad’s former kosher catering shop that my parents surprised my sister and I with a trip to Israel.[/su_intro]

I was off the walls, shrieking with excitement. A smile from ear to ear. I was going out of the country for the first time! I would get to see my aunts, uncles, and cousins! I would get to travel around and practice the couple of Hebrew phrases I knew! I was jumping for joy throughout the entire 2-week journey.

My parents, sister, and I walked off the plane and almost immediately started the vacation upon stepping onto Israeli soil. We got to see all the common tourist sites, and went to my cousin’s wedding. We had such a great time, but as soon as all the fun started, it was already time to leave. So sadly, we packed up and flew home. But then we went again for my bar mitzvah. Then again for another cousin’s wedding.

Several years went by. I got busy with high school, overnight camp, youth group, etc. I put Israel on the back-burner. But as those other pieces of my life faded away, I felt a need to see again why I loved Israel so much in my childhood. And this trip would have a higher purpose than just sightseeing and family visits (as much as I appreciate those things).

So I came alone, on my own initiative.

No programs to guide my way along a professionally prepared itinerary, to learn history or take pictures at touristy spots (although this is all important too). No, this time, I got to know the people. I spoke with 18 and 19 year olds who chose to drop their lives in their home countries to return to the homeland, to serve alongside native 18 and 19 year olds. I spoke to Jews, Muslims, Christians, humans about their lives, of the joys and complications that they experience. I sat on the beach and soaked up the sun—but not too much, I’m a gingy as they say. I hiked the rocky terrain of the green mountains and tan deserts. I tasted every crumb of food within my reach. I spoke in the language that my ancestors have spoken in for thousands of years. I listened to the music and joined in song. Then and there, I was home.

I had come into Israel looking for a good time. Good people. Good food. Good weather. Good pictures. Good memories. But I got more than I bargained for. I found home. And my story continues…

PS: My sincerest thanks to my family, friends, Volunteers for Israel, CJP, Hasbara Fellowships, Onward Israel, BOMAH, and all who I’ve met along the way. תודה לכם

In Search of the Tribal Fire

[su_intro]This past week I participated in a five day camping / hiking dialogue seminar in the Northern Negev.[/su_intro]

Hillel created the program, Tribal Fire, in an attempt to encourage Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel to exchange perceptions about their Jewish identities. It was a an invigorating and emotional journey, spending five days in nature together sitting around the campfire and discussing our beliefs and very personal experiences. I never thought that I could create such a close bond with the Israelis I met in this short amount of time. The connection between us was immediately apparent , which allowed for some serious discussions and exchanges of opinions, thoughts and beliefs.

Over the course of our five-day experience we hiked during the day, camped in the freezing cold desert under the stars (huddling 7 people together in a small tent), spent a beautiful Shabbat in nature, slept in the sun, played guitar and introduced Israelis to American s’mores around a bonfire (which they loved). Personally, (because of a bad ankle the last day) I had the amazing opportunity to explore Be’er Sheva and Netivot with a local and learned through her experiences what life is like in Southern Israel. The final destination for the group was in Sderot, a small city on the border of Gaza that has been the victim of many rocket attacks.

As for Judaism… I had never thought much about my Jewish Identity before coming to Israel. After spending four months living here however, I have developed a greater sense of what Judaism means to me. We won’t get into all that right now, but the point is that it never even crossed my mind that Israeli Jews have a completely different way of relating to their Jewish identity then I do.

For me it was tough to express my Jewish identity growing up.

In America, it is not so “cool” to be Jewish. People would say to me things like “wow I didn’t know you were Jewish…” I would reply with “well I’m not really that Jewish…” or something along those lines. In hindsight, I am a little embarrassed about that fact that I felt the need to keep my identity hidden, not only from my peers, but also from myself. The reality for me though is that it is not quite so easy to be Jewish because in the Diaspora, as we always represent the minority.

The Israeli’s that I have become close with during our trip had a different connection with their Jewish identities. In Israel, it is easy to be Jewish because the environment in Israel is predominately Jewish. There is less worry about things like intermarriage and anti-Semitism. However, I observed that there is a struggle of identity between being Jewish and being Israeli. The two coincide with one another to become one single identity. Israeli’s don’t understand the struggle of Jews in the Diaspora because they have never been subjected to an environment where you have to go out of your way to be Jewish.

For Jews in the Diaspora, it is important to go to Israel to really experience the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Visiting Israel allowed me to become more in touch with my own Jewish identity. However, it is almost equally as important for Israeli’s to spend some time in Jewish communities in the Diaspora so that they can experience the separation and the struggle to practice Judaism in a society that is not constructed around it. This experience can lead to the understanding of the difference between Jewish identity and Israeli identity.

Jewish identity is different for every person. Whether you identify with the cultural, moral or spiritual aspects of Judaism, I believe that your Jewish identity is about finding whatever works for you. But in order to continuously grow as a person, you need to ask the right questions and search for the right answers. The most important thing is to have dialogue with others who don’t think like you. There is no way to expand your own identity without listening to and trying to understand the perspectives of others.

A Song of Ice and Fire

[su_intro]I am not sure what led me to make the decision to move to Israel except for the feeling that it would be now or never.[/su_intro]

For my 5 month internship with BOMAH– The Brand of Milk and Honey on Career Israel it is my job is to collect stories from people who have a connection with Israel. Whether they are recent Birthright or Masa program participants, olim (new immigrants) or local Israelis, it is my task to collect their stories and publish them for the world to see. Now it is my turn to share my experience. Since most of the stories I gather take place from within Israel, it is time to talk about some place different. In this blog I will talk about my experience leaving Israel and traveling to Prague.

My trip to Prague with the Jeff Seidel Foundation was an amazing three-day trip. I went with a group of 40 people from Israel (Career Israel, other MASA participants and a few Israelis).

I have always wanted to see Prague, mostly because I’ve heard from friends about the cheap beer. But spending Shabbat there and learning about the history of Jews in the Czech Republic made Prague something entirely different from what I had imagined.

We immediately covered the typical tourist attractions; the Prague Castle, John Lennon Wall, Charles Bridge, Clock Tower and a boat ride down the Vltava River. I enjoyed just walking around the city, eating kielbasa, drinking hot wine and cheap beer. Looking at the beautiful buildings, visiting museums, breathing in the crisp air, and admiring the luxuriousness of Prague. With the snow falling, the medieval buildings, and the Prague Castle looming in the background, it felt like I was in an episode of Game of Thrones.

We stayed at the Caruso hotel, two doors down from the Chabad in Prague, which was very convenient for Shabbat. It was the first Shabbat that I spent outside of Israel since my arrival in August. I never truly considered the connection between Shabbat and the Jewish people around the world, until my experience in Prague. Here we were, davening with the local congregation in a city with a historical track record of persecution against the Jews. It was from this experience that, for the first time, I really started to comprehend the strength and the resilience of the Jewish people of the Diaspora.

I never knew how strange and mystical the Jewish history was in the Czech Republic. With Rabbi Ezra Amichai leading the way, we explored the old Jewish ghetto, visiting multiple synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery. We learned about the history of the Jews in Prague, about the reorganization and deportation of Jews during the Holocaust, and listened to the legend of the Golem. What really struck home was the Pinkas synagogue, an old place of worship turned into a memorial for 80,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust with no graves; their names were written on the walls to commemorate their death. When you hear a number like 80,000 it is hard to appreciate the reality of how many people that is. Every person’s name was hand written and the entire building was full of names and where each person was from. I saw many familiar names and even a few variations of my last name.

The reality of what happened during the Holocaust was starting to hit me like never before.

Another area of significance to me was the Old Jewish Cemetery. Dating back to the early 15th century, this burial ground in the old Jewish quarter of Prague hosts an unknown number of burials with mossy tombstones protruding from the ground in sporadic directions. There are no dates indicating the time period of the graves (except for the ones with the Kabalistic Hebrew conversion symbols). This Cemetery is the final resting place of famous scholars and rabbis including the legendary Maharal of Prague. Walking through the cemetery was like traveling back in time. I realized that Prague was a place that once had a significant Jewish influence and is one of the oldest and most-well known Jewish communities in Central Europe. I felt an outlandish sense of empathy for the Jews that once used to be a part of the culture that are now lost in time.

It was strangely fascinating that a city with such religious history including amazing synagogues and huge churches could have a population that is primarily Atheist. But things only got stranger, more shocking and conflicting, during our visit to Theresienstadt.

Theresienstadt was a transit camp and was used for Nazi propaganda as a “model Jewish settlement”. Tens of thousands of people died there, some blatantly killed and others dying from malnutrition and disease. More than 150,000 people (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps.

While preparing for our visit to the concentration camp, I thought it was going to be a big courtyard with some barracks, a watchtower and barbed wire. It took me by surprise, completely breaking all stereotypes for what you would think a concentration camp to be. It was like a ghost town, a very eerie atmosphere with large streets and buildings, creepy trees and a foreboding ominous presence. Yet people still live their daily lives there like the Holocaust never happened. Our tour guide mentioned that most people who live there see no problem with their residency there and don’t even acknowledge that their home may have also been the home to victims of the Holocaust. It was hard for me to believe that such tragic events could be so easily brushed aside like it never happened.

The museum at Terezin was full of artwork, music, journals, poetry, theater and memorabilia from Jews that were living there during the Holocaust. I found myself asking; what would I do in that situation? What method would I choose to express myself during that miserable time of oppression? If and how would I survive?

The hardest part of Theresienstadt was going inside the crematorium. There we were, a group of Jews coming from Israel, standing in the middle of a Central European concentration camp, in a place where the most unimaginable things happened not so long ago. It all started to become too real. We each lit a candle and sang Am Yisrael Chai and Hatikvah together. I was overwhelmed with emotions that I have never felt before; sorrow for the history, optimism for the resilience of my people, appreciation for everything I take for granted, and the drive to live my life to the fullest every day.

What I found amazing was that despite all the death and misery prevalent during life in Theresienstadt, Jews still found a way to keep their faith. Buried deep in the middle of the old fortress, there is a hidden synagogue that was used during the Holocaust. On one wall of this obscure, cramped shul in the middle of a WWII concentration camp is a faded Hebrew inscription of the prayer “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning”. We closed our eyes and prayed. It truly was a moving and spiritual experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Overall, I can confidently say that I learned more about myself, my religion, and the history of my people than I had originally expected.

The trip made me appreciate the State of Israel as a home for all Jews.

I gained respect and admiration for the ambition and resilience that Jews have exhibited throughout history and the extraordinary lengths in which people have gone to preserve their Jewish identity and the practice of religion during times of turmoil and in the face of death. As I reflect on my experience in Prague I feel a void has been filled related to my knowledge about my Jewish Identity and myself. However, there is always room for growth and this experience is just one fraction of self-enlightenment I have felt since I have been living in Israel.

A Modern Day Epic

I left Los Angeles for Israel on August 15. Nothing about that Thursday morning seemed extraordinary. The sun shined down on the golden coast as it does every other day. Little did I know that this day was the beginning of a journey that I can only surmount as a modern day Epic.

I came to Israel seeking experience and adventure on a five-month program called Career Israel. Now, three months later I have made lifelong friends, voyaged to places of legend, fought heroic battles, found a job, and even fell in love. Yes, in three months, I was able to cover all the themes of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.

Upon my arrival to the modern city of Tel-Aviv, I experienced an overwhelming flood of emotions. What those emotions were I was not able to describe that day. But the longer I live in this amazing country, the more I begin to unravel their meaning.

As I stepped off the cold airplane and into the Israeli sun, I was immediately hit with the 90% humidity that the Middle East is known for. I got into my cousin’s car, and we raced down the Ayalon Highway to Ra’anana where my entire Israeli family was waiting for me trying to fatten me up with the dates, figs, goat meat, hummus and falafel.

While sitting at the table in a near food coma, I had my first understanding of Israel. I knew I was home. It was during this first meal that I realized my Jewish Identity has no repercussions in this country.

Israel may not be my birthplace but it was clear to me that this land is also my home, and everyone who already lives here would welcome me with open arms.

I pushed on beyond the loving (yet confining) arms of my family and began my voyage with Career Israel. I left the high tech phenomena city of Tel-Aviv and in 40 minutes I travelled 3000 years back in time to Jerusalem.

It was traveling to this ancient city that I had my first battle.

A cabbie tried to take more money from me because he assumed my American accent might be a sign of weakness (little did he know I speak Hebrew). After about ten minutes and a number of well-placed verbal assaults, we came to an agreement. Emerging victorious I paid him a price that I found to be fair. Rather than being upset with me, the cabbie seemed content. He cheerfully wished me a “Yom Tov” and drove away. This was my second understanding of the people and mentality of Israel.

People here are tough, they’re even tougher than the New Yorkers. Here they are bred with thick skin, and do not mind a little confrontation. But at the end of the day, this confrontation is seen with a certain respect. One must stand their ground and try and get ahead. It garners a certain status, never settle in this country; always know there is a better deal.

Once I was victorious in my first battle against the cabbie, I met the Career Israel group at the Ytizhak Rabin hostel in Jerusalem. At first it was like a middle school dance. Boys awkwardly huddling together making small talk, making friends, while girls were in another corner, also feeling out the strange new people.

A jumble of accents and cultures clashed during the initial week. It was a fight for friendship, a fight for not being judged, and a fight to find the true identity of each of these new people. In one week we had to make a decision of who our roommates would be for the next 5 months.

I only wish I could have been a third party observing because this battle must have looked like a cocktail of the Jersey shore, Real Life, Big Brother, and Greek. To put it in colloquial terms, it was a shit-show.

However, what unfolded that week in Jerusalem was something spectacular. The pressure and heat we all felt from our new environment took us in as pieces of coal and spat us out as diamonds. During that week I met so many people who have displayed their character to me, locking their place in my heart as true friends.

As my favorite author Kurt Vonnegut wrote,

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured”

I can confidently say that in a week, with MASA as the catalyst, this group of 120 people laid the foundation of a community that has evolved and truly has cured any remnants of loneliness in my life.

The last and definitely most moving part of an Epic is the love interest.

I can say that in three months I have fallen in love three times:

First with Israel as a country, she has been sweet and sour and like in any relationship we sometimes clash but I love her imperfections and she has been kind.

Second with the friends I have met, they have inspired me to grow, encouraged me to evolve, and helped me shape who I am.

Third with a beautiful woman, but being the product of a Jewish mother, a gentleman does not kiss and tell.

All these experiences have made me stronger, helped me grow, and made me realize that my life, though complicated and undoubtedly human, has shaped me in a way that I am only beginning to understand.

I can truly recommend that spending a significant length of time in Israel is a necessity for any and every Jew, no matter of religious observance. It will only help you grow, answer many questions, and raise the right questions for the future.

Mandela’s Story – An Unknown Perspective

[su_intro]Israel joins the world in mourning the loss of an iconic figure –as shown on the front page of “Yediot Ahronot” on 8 December 2013[/su_intro]

There are certain watershed moments that redefine history.

Ranking them in order of importance is a matter of cultural perspective and geographical bias however as a Jewish South African and (I’d like to think) a caring member of the human race the date “the 5th of December” shall be burned into my memory as the day that the world lost a giant amongst men.
Now I am currently in Israel and was not at home to commemorate the life of this great man with my fellow South Africans however I truly believe that Mandela’s legacy transcends national boundaries, and although as a South African I may feel that I have a strong connection to Mandela because I live in the country that he fought for -the values that he stood for are as relevant to me as to someone in Israel.

Nelson Mandela (or Tata Madiba as he was more affectionately known-meaning “father of the nation”) was more than just a statesmen and a visionary. He embodied humility and the values of peace and re-conciliation. He dedicated his life to the realisation of these goals, and based on the response of the international community to his passing, it is clear that his example has inspired millions across the globe and Israel joins the world in commemorating this international icon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Mandela as “a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence” and Jerusalem based, former anti-Apartheid activist, Benjamin Pogrund stated that “Nelson Mandela endured so much suffering in his life and yet emerged so totally a believer in humanity, putting out his hand to the enemy, is why he is the most admired man of our age”. Many believe that Mandela’s attitude towards Jews and Israel was ambivalent but that is where I believe there is a discrepancy.

Unbeknown to many is that Nelson Mandela’s life was intertwined with a series of Jewish characters, all of whom were instrumental in his journey and I would like to acknowledge them in the context of his life story by explaining how they played a part in his life. Madiba was of royal blood and at his birth he was never intended to be the “father of the nation” but rather the king of the Thembu people and at this point I offer a perfect example of where a single act has created ripples throughout history .It is something to consider that if Walter Sisulu hadn’t introduced Mandela to the Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky who gave him his first job Mandela might have gone back to the Transkei , never gotten into politics and Mandela as we know him may never have existed.

If I read his immortal “speech from the dock” that maintained the morale of an entire nation during his long 27 year prison term I remember that it was edited by the famous South African Jewish author Nadine Gordimer; and as the current national chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish students I feel tremendous pride in my organisation when I think that Johnathon Handler, chairperson of the UCT branch of South African Union of Jewish Students, was one of a group of 15 conscientious objectors to make public their resistance to war in the townships shortly before the End Conscription Campaign was banned.

There are so many other names to mention. Helen Suzman of the liberal progressive party (who religiously visited Mabida in prison) and one of Mandela’s strongest supporters during his presidency was the late former South African chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, who led South African Jewry through the transformation to democracy. On sighting Harris during his trip to Israel in 1999, Mandela proclaimed: “My rabbi has come!” At this point dear reader I hope that you are getting the idea that Mandela was not just a South African icon but a leader with deeply entrenched Jewish connections but I digress.

In terms of the question I know that everyone wants to ask. What was Mandela’s view on Israel? With South African Jews so passionately Zionist, the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would inevitably come up between them and Mandela. He accepted Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 borders and also promoted a Palestinian state. He is quoted saying “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders.” Nelson Mandela was a peacemaker who desired two states for two people and those who are using him to discredit Israel are grossly misrepresenting his legacy.

If one looks deeper into the issue, in his book “Long Walk to Freedom” he wrote, “I read “The Revolt” by Menachem Begin and was encouraged”. In addition, 1995 he attended a ceremony at the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg in honour of murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin (whom he deeply admired) and in October 1999, he visited Israel, accompanied by Jewish community leaders.

If one wished to be historically accurate, one can go back and reference Israel’s and South Africa’s relations during the Apartheid regime, which is not a fact that can be denied, however-and herein lay the greatness of Nelson Mandela-he was not a man who dwelled in the past. He believed in forgiving past mistakes and moving forward, and as President Shimon Peres put it

“He was a strong proponent of democracy, a valued arbitrator, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and above everything he was a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue.”

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is proof that one person can build a nation and change the face of society ; and it is my hope that one day someone will come along who will do for Israel what Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did for South Africa.