After blogging their way through a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, a wine festival, the intricate web of the Old City’s holy sites, Masada, the nightlife of Tel Aviv and more, a hand-picked group of four prolific online writers made their way to a hill in the capital’s southern neighborhood of Gilo on Tuesday afternoon and gazed out over the sprawling hillsides and sun-kissed minarets of Palestinian Authority- controlled Bethlehem.

The idea was to shift the focus of the bloggers’ trip – which until Tuesday had been spent familiarizing them with everyday life here and “softer,” domestic issues – to the political and security realities facing the Jewish state and the often-tumultuous relationship Israel has with its Palestinian neighbors.

“Not to denigrate America’s security thinking,” the group’s guide, political and military analyst Elliot Chodoff told the bloggers. “But the Americans are worried about what’s going on in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen."

“We, on the other hand, are worried about what’s going on in that house right there,” he said, pointing at random to one apartment building amid the hundreds that crowd Bethlehem’s border with Jerusalem.

“The geography here is such that we have no time, we have no back-up, because the two populations are, as you can clearly see, just so close to one another,” Chodoff said.

As the visitors nodded in a collective expression of understanding, the purpose of their 10-day visit here became staggering clear.

Instead of embarking on the tiring and sometimes-futile task of acting as Israeli ambassadors to the world through the written word, 24 Hebrew University students, graduates of the 2010 StandWithUs Fellowship program, developed a pilot project called “Once in a Lifetime” to bring proven writing talent – i.e., four successful bloggers – to Israel, and let them see the country for themselves, while blogging about it.

The project went well from the outset, with organizers securing sponsorships from El Al Israel Airlines, Fattal Hotels and Resorts, and the Jerusalem Municipality, among others, to provide the bloggers with their all-expenses paid trips.

From there, organizers began the process of selecting three foreign bloggers who would take part in the project and see and experience Israel – presenting their impressions to their readers both during the trip and, ideally, after they return home, too.

The fourth participant – who turned out to be a blogger as well – was selected in a competition that challenged young people to submit a one-minute video on YouTube explaining why they should win the trip to Israel.

“Our goal is to create a better understanding of what Israel is all about – culture, night life, cuisine, music, history and the delicate fabric of life here,” explained Shiri Cohen, a Once in a Lifetime co-organizer.

“The four participants have been staying in a Jerusalem apartment to facilitate interaction with the community,” Cohen said. “Through tours of Jerusalem, dipping in the Dead Sea, and clubbing in Tel Aviv, they’re learning about the historical, religious, societal and political aspects of Israel and getting a feel for the young, hip and energetic vibe that characterizes the modern Jewish state.”

Organizers anticipate that the bloggers will reach hundreds of thousands of people worldwide when they post five-minute videos about their experiences and offer fresh new stories about Israel to their readers.

Dan Redford, a 21-year-old student at Michigan State University who speaks Chinese and is currently a US ambassador at the Shanghai World Expo, has a blog at www.shanghai-exposed.com that generates hits in the thousands.

“There’s been a lot of eyeopening ,” Redford told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday of his trip so far.

“I had a very mainstream understanding of the conflict before coming here,” he said. “And this trip has shown me that not only are there two sides to every story, there are millions of sides.

“My journey started in China, and there I learned that every issue, every situation, has millions of different parts, and those parts are people,” Redford said.

“Now, I have friends here, who are faces that I’ll take back with me when I read the newspaper and when I blog. The understanding that there are millions of faces here and millions of perspectives is what will hopefully prevent over-generalizations that lead to further conflict,” Redford said.

Blogger Chas Newkey-Burden, a 37-year-old from Windsor, England, is a journalist and now an author.

He writes a successful blog at www.OyVaGoy.com and has more than 10,000 direct followers on Twitter. He also blogs at various outlets including The Guardian newspaper and The CifWatch blog. He also has guest spots on BBC radio an average of five to six times a month, when he can discuss any subject he chooses.

Although Newkey-Burden had been to Israel before, he told the Post on Tuesday that because this trip had been “so in-depth, it almost feels like my first time here.”

Newkey-Burden added that one of his favorite experiences had been the group’s visit to the Kol Rina Synagogue in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood, which is known for its lively, spiritual services, a la Shlomo Carlebach.

“It was really joyful, and very intense,” he said.

But speaking of Tuesday’s experience viewing the West Bank security barrier outside Bethlehem, Newkey-Burden said that now he could “blog with more power.”

“I already knew that 95 percent of the wall is in fact fence and not a wall,” he said. “But now I can say that I know that because I stood in front of it and saw it with my own eyes.”

“Overall, this has taken my ability to write about Israel to a new level,” he added. “And I feel that now I can be more effective to help Israel.”

Another bloggers on the trip is 24-year-old New Jersey native Ryan Mauro, who writes five times a week for NewsReal and has a personal Web site, WorldThreats.com.

He writes mostly about national security and geopolitics, and is a frequent guest on talk radio.

“I have devoted myself to human rights and fighting radical Islam and totalitarianism,” Ryan said. “What better place to hone my understanding than Israel, which faces daily existential threats from radical Islamic elements?”

Also on the trip is Sun Jinyi, a 28-year-old from Beijing. Her blog is on Sina.com, the No. 1 bloggers’ Web site in China. Sun Jinyi updates her Sina blog every couple of days (http://blog.sina.com.cn/sunjinyi824). She also blogs nearly every day on RenRen, an extremely popular Chinese version of FaceBook, http://www.renren.com/profile.do?id=1827779336&_os_type=32.

For more information on the program and daily updates see http://www.onceinalifetime.org.il/ and http://www.youtube.com/mytrip.

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