PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN and his wife, Nechama, host Rona Ramon and students recognized for social leadership in a ceremony at the President’s Residence.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
With four children to raise, Rona Ramon could not afford the luxury of self-pity when her husband, Ilan, a fighter pilot who was Israel’s first astronaut, died on February 1, 2003, when the Columbia space shuttle was destroyed in the atmosphere as it was returning home.
The tragedy was compounded in September 2009 when her son Assaf, who had followed his father into the air force and had exhibited similar leadership qualities, died at age 21 when his F-16 crashed in a training exercise.
In memory of her husband and son, and to continue their work and ambitions, Rona established the Ilan and Assaf Ramon Foundation, aiming to ignite in youths three essential values that exemplified Ilan and Assaf Ramon: academic excellence, social leadership and extraordinary courage.
One of projects of the foundation encourages social leadership in high school students throughout the country, spurring them to reach their full potential.
Ramon brought a large group of such students to the President’s Residence on Wednesday to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, in conjunction with Rivlin’s Israeli Hope initiative.
The students, who came from all over the country, had earlier received excellence awards for the examples they set in social leadership. Some were additionally involved in robotics, and one had created an app for student use in recording time spent on research and study.
The most common area of social bridge-building was between the students and Holocaust survivors, usually involving teaching the survivors how to use computers and mobile phones. The survivors sometimes used the informal lessons as a vehicle to open up and share painful memories.
Students working with survivors said that they learned a lot and felt that hearing these personal histories on a one-on-one basis gave them a much deeper understanding of what happened.
Ramon said that some 600 youngsters have engaged in the foundation’s two-year programs to date.
Alon, 17, of Ashdod said that he was inspired by the personalities of Ilan and Assaf Ramon – their ability to take initiative, advance to the next step and overcome adversities along the way.
He responded to a remark by Rivlin about the group being the leaders of the future, saying, “We are not just the generation of the future. We are the generation of the present.” High on the list of projects in which he is engaged is dialogue among people of diverse opinions. He made the point that he doesn’t allow them to scream at each other, but instead encourages them to respect each other’s differences.
Rivlin acknowledged that dialogue without screaming is definitely more effective, “because you can’t hear what the other side is saying when everyone is screaming.”
One of the more unusual projects with Holocaust survivors was disclosed by Chen, a dance student at the Jerusalem Music Academy.
Students and Holocaust survivors with a musical background work together on music composed during the Holocaust and create an arrangement for it, which they perform to large audiences.
Several such compositions have been performed at concerts at Yad Vashem and elsewhere, she said.
In addition to Holocaust survivors, students felt it important to help the more unfortunate – especially children with special needs – as mentors, coaches and teachers.
Some of the youths in Ramon’s group were involved in changing perceptions of the peripheral areas where they live. Nir and Itai from Dimona are highly technical and work with robotics, a field that they are actively promoting in their city.
Yuval from Ashkelon, in addition to working with Holocaust survivors to whom he teaches the intricacies of computer use, established a project for the prevention of shaming. He talks in classrooms about the long-term harm of shaming, telling students to think twice before they engage in character assassination that is impossible to retract. He organized an emergency phone service for distressed victims of shaming who seek help.
Naya, a shy girl from the North who is keen to address stereotype bias, brings Arab and Jewish students together and asks them what they know about each other’s culture. It’s usually very little – if anything at all – at first meeting.
“Look, you’re living right next to each other and you don’t know anything about each other,” she tells them.
Rivlin was pleased to learn about her project, saying that the local Arab community is an important bridge for making peace with neighboring countries.
Rivlin emphasized the significance of the Ramon Foundation.
“This is a family that represents both the pride and pain of Israel, has given Israel its best and has set an example of how to overcome the worst of tragedies.”
There are groups in Israel that have no resources, “and they need you,” Rivlin told his guests.