Have you ever held an imaginary conversation with American college students who believe Israel is an apartheid state dominated by big bad settlers and soldiers who torture children?
In your imaginary conversation, you might start with history and a graph of statistics. But what if you could take this one step further, inviting those convinced of the evils of the Jewish state into your home for four days? They would join your table for Shabbat dinner, come to synagogue, break pizza with your children and grandchildren. Ready to commit?
The good citizens of Efrat do this. Efrat, you recall, is in Gush Etzion, and although the history you might want to convey might note that Efrat was built on a barren hillside, that Gush Etzion was settled in 1940, that in May, 1948, 127 Jew were massacred, the students will doubtlessly Google the name and learn in their ultimate resource, Wikipedia, that Efrat is an “illegal settlement” with authentic settlers.
Authentic settler No. 1 is Ardie Geldman, project initiator of iTalk Israel. He’s 66, with a large knitted kippah and a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard. Born in Chicago, he became observant in college, holds right-of-center political views, and has six children. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t pack a weapon.
Geldman understands the potential impact of student trips. He was a music major at Northwestern, when he was offered a student trip by the American Zionist Youth Foundation. It wasn’t what people said that changed his life. On a crowded, unairconditioned Egged bus, he saw the varied faces of Israelis – the ingathering of the Jewish people – and felt a thunderbolt, an epiphany: he needed to join them. Lighting struck again when California-born Ivonne Firestone walked into the room at a melaveh malka, a post-Shabbat social gathering, he was attending. Even though she came with a date, Geldman decided he’d marry her. It took him a month to convince her.
Geldman has less than that month to influence the “mildly hostile to fully hostile” student and adult tourists who think Israel is inhabited by fascists, land robbers and abusive soldiers. His graduate studies at Brandeis University and the University of Chicago were in sociology, but he’s frequently called on to speak to groups about Israeli policies. Only on rare occasions (recently with an adult group from Belgium) does he have to curtail a discussion that deteriorates to insults from wannabe moral arbiters defaming Jews. But even the most scintillating 90-minute lectures have their limits, acknowledges Geldman.
“We cerebral Jews, with some exceptions, attempt mainly to immediately win over people’s minds with facts, figures, history lectures and the like, but that doesn’t compete with emotional and spiritual experiences,” he says.
The student groups in particular may spend weeks living in Palestinian homes, the way Geldman, as a student, lived on a kibbutz with an assigned mother and father, feeling part of the national weltanschauung.
The Palestinian Authority has reportedly invested in helping families (mostly Christian) to expand their homes into bed-and-breakfast facilities to host student groups. The hosts often invite the visitors to family gatherings and celebrations. They fill them in on the Palestinian narrative – how, for instance, the Israelis are to blame for the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem.
“It’s not a matter of their minds being made up,” says Geldman. “Their hearts are made up.”
After a few of the students took up Geldman on the offer he makes in his lectures to visit a settlement, and came back with enthusiastic reports to their trip organizers, plans moved ahead for a four-day stay in Efrat. With the cooperation of Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi and his staff, Geldman approached families to take in students.
A typical group is from Eastern Mennonite University, whose students spend a whole semester in the Middle East, including three weeks living in Palestinian homes not far from Efrat.
The four days in Efrat recently included bread baking, meetings with yeshiva students, and a side trip to Hadassah Hospital to meet with Jewish and Palestinian staff and patients. There are lectures from politically right- and left-inclined Efrat residents. But the heart of the program is Shabbat: the Shabbat table, synagogue, schmoozing and noshing in the afternoon.
DEBBIE AND Dov Rapps are among the host families who have been taking students into their homes for the last four years. Former Americans in their early 60s, they moved to Israel from Teaneck, NJ, where Debbie was involved in the Jewish Community Relations Council. She has worked in public relations for Fortune 500 companies. But even so, they were a little uneasy with their first group.
“At the beginning, we tiptoed around the reason they were here,” Debbie says.
Daughter Talia, now 16, was the best at outreach, because she’s fluent in universal teen culture. Talia always takes part in the Saturday night pizza party, where lively, even confrontational dialogue is encouraged.
But over Shabbat, the visitors put their cellphones and tablets away, forgo political issues, and experience the Jewish day of rest.
“They are happy to have the American food and time to nap and unwind,” says Debbie. “I feel privileged to be a representative of the beauty of Judaism, where they meet a Jewish family that believes in Israel and Zionism.”
All four of the Rapps’s sons have served in the IDF – three as lone soldiers before their parents moved to Israel. When their youngest son came home for Shabbat, the students got to meet a soldier up close. He happily joined in the Saturday night discussions.
“We also enjoy the hosting,” says Debbie. “It goes two ways. These young people come from unusual backgrounds, whether they’re Mennonite or from Hawaii. One turned out to be the child of a congressman. Most young people wouldn’t want to go on such a long and challenging Middle Eastern trip, so the ones who come are special, and will surely be leaders in the future.”
Geldman has a huge folder of anonymous student evaluations, and I grabbed and photocopied a random two dozen reports. By far, the highlight for the students was spending Shabbat with families. In second place was talking with peers in small groups at the yeshiva.
Wrote one typical responder: “Before I came to Efrat I was trying to listen to Israeli points of view with an open mind – but I wasn’t really succeeding. Now I feel as though my mind and also my heart have been opened. I still believe the Palestinians about their hurts and injustices – I’m still ‘on their side.’ But I’m on your side, too – I feel as though my heart is big enough to love you both.”
For Geldman, who is convinced that Israel advocacy is more about touching people’s hearts than their minds, that’s enough.
Debbie Rapps has an additional measure. If the guests brag that their “sister Talia” and “their brother the soldier” made good points in the discussion, and if they hug her good-bye, “dayenu – it’s enough” for her.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.
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