"It's difficult to advocate for a country that you've never been to and have never experienced," said Chicago-area high school student Sarah Sechan, whose visit here ended Tuesday, as part of Write On for Israel, a program for aspiring teenage Jewish-American journalists.
Before coming to Israel, Sechan and 14 other Jewish teens spent seven months in the US learning about Israeli history and politics and strengthening their communications skills.
While the coursework and seminars at home provided a strong knowledge base, Sechan said, the group's culminating free 10-day trip to Israel, which included meeting with settlers and Palestinian teens, brought the facts to life.
"You can look at pictures, but that isn't enough," said Sechan.
Aaron Cohen, the director of Write On's Chicago program and a chaperone on the recent trip, said the itinerary, which addressed both cultural and political issues, was designed to develop the "nuanced understanding" of Israel that he believes is necessary for effective reporting and advocacy.
"We wanted to get a view of [Israeli] society in as many aspects as we can," said Cohen, who piloted the Chicago program in 2004. "We focused both on areas of conflict and how Israel defends itself, but also tried to gain a greater understanding of Israel beyond the conflict."
For example, student seminars with an IDF rabbi and an expert on the Palestinian Liberation Army brought context to the political conflict, while a meeting with David Horovitz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, demonstrated how news organizations thread the pieces together, he said.
Founded in 2002 by Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, the two-year program for Jewish-American high school students from New York City and Chicago aims to strengthen Jewish voices on college campuses and American media, Cohen said.
After completing political and communications seminars and returning from their trip to Israel, participants spend their second year working in advocacy in the local community and reporting on Jewish relations at college campuses.
The unique blend of education and first-hand experience will likely prove invaluable for subsequent work in the Jewish community in the US, said Chicago Write On participant Aaron Magid, of his visit to Israel.
"It's one thing to hear about how Israeli society reacts to violence," he said, "but it's another to go into packed malls the day after an attack on soldiers and see that life here does go on."