A window to the world

The new Jerusalem Media Syndrome project is rebranding the Holy City as a first-rate destination for international students.

At the Jerusalem Media Syndrome final presentations and awards night (photo credit: SHANI ISRAELOWITZ)
At the Jerusalem Media Syndrome final presentations and awards night
(photo credit: SHANI ISRAELOWITZ)
In the minds of ordinary people worldwide, the name “Jerusalem” invokes vastly different images as manifold as the colors under the sun, from a “shining city upon a hill” and spiritual hub to the war-torn focal point of an ageless bloody conflict. It is exceedingly rare, however, to find someone utterly indifferent to it.
The disproportionate media coverage of the city and the curiosity it inspires render the battle over its public image ever more crucial. As it thrives in the face of recent upheavals and continues to develop into a vibrant cultural and academic hub, the yet untapped potential to rebrand the capital as a first-rate destination for international students has not escaped the attention of figures like Moshe Kaptowsky of the Jerusalem Development Authority, who heads a project fittingly named AcademiCity.
For Kaptowsky, the 2,000 students arriving in Jerusalem each year are a paltry number compared to future possibilities.
“The global market of international students is rapidly growing, as studying abroad is becoming increasingly the norm in many countries,” he points out. “We want to grab a bigger share of that market.”
To this end, he and his team have pushed for the opening of a wide array of academic programs in Jerusalem that will cater specifically to the international crowd. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem will soon be opening four complete undergraduate programs conducted entirely in English. The Jerusalem Institute of Technology and other academic institutions are expected to follow suit in the near future.
The ambitious – yet certainly not unrealistic – objective outlined by Kaptowsky is to double the current number of visiting students within three years, and triple it within five.
As far as marketing is concerned, Israel finds it difficult to compete with wealthier nations like France and Germany, which are also vying for their share of the pie, but with substantially heftier budgets. The tens of millions that such countries invest in attracting international students would seem to totally eclipse any possible effort made by AcademiCity to bring them to Jerusalem instead.
But Kaptowsky would strongly disagree.
“People don’t believe in brochures and fliers anymore – they look for the authentic story,” he says.
He and his team have realized that what truly captures the attention of prospective students from abroad are the personal experiences of peers already in Israel, as related through the social media. These unfiltered, first-person accounts of life in Israel are seen as far more genuine and ultimately sway greater numbers of international students to make Jerusalem their destination of choice.
When Kaptowsky met with Itzik Yarkoni, a seasoned marketing expert, the vague concept of bottom-up marketing began to galvanize into a joint project now known as the Jerusalem Media Syndrome (JMS). The idea was simple: equip international students in Jerusalem with the basic tools to cruise confidently through the social media, and encourage them to share their Jerusalem stories online with friends worldwide.
The Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, together with the Masa program of the Jewish Agency, enthusiastically answered the call and helped select 45 students from abroad who underwent a series of workshops led by Yarkoni through the fall semester, covering everything from Photoshop and video-making techniques to strategies for maximizing their audiences on Facebook and Twitter.
Between workshops, the students were taken to a local professional basketball game and a Kaveret concert, and were introduced to many highlights of Jerusalem’s sizzling nightlife.
“We taught these students how to tell a story,” Yarkoni explains, “and then connected them to the hot spots of local culture, giving them the opportunity to experience the real Jerusalem – and all this with a negligible budget.”
As the semester draws to a close, members of the first class of JMS gathered this past week for a final presentation of their prodigious work of the past three months. A total of 600 blogs, dozens of videos and scores of photos, all offering a rare and genuine sneak-peek of the Jerusalem urban scene as captured with their own eyes and camera lenses, have made immeasurable ripples through cyberspace.
The clamorous response on social media, from Argentina to Russia, exceeded Yarkoni’s wildest expectations.
Carlos, visiting from Brazil, documented his life in Jerusalem through a visual diary on Instagram.
“I wanted to share with my friends from home what was nearly impossible to express in words,” he says.
“Posting a photo of prayers at the Kotel and later a snapshot of cool street art I found downtown showed the incredible contrasts I discovered in Jerusalem.”
Sam, from London and an avid fan of Australian football, was surprised to find in Jerusalem an active team made up of both Jewish and Arab players, and even joined them for the semester.
“The guys there gave me a completely different perspective on society in Israel. I wrote a blog about it, and my teammates back home are still bombarding me with questions,” he relates.
Cheyenne, from Tennessee, reported online on her first Hanukka celebration with Israeli students, earning her an unanticipated swarm of excited posts and messages from curious relatives eager to learn more about life in the Holy Land.
It turns out that for Cheyenne and many of her peers, the JMS workshops also offered a priceless opportunity to hone their marketing skills and raise their work on the social media to previously unthought-of levels.
“The project challenged me to think strategically before I post,” she explains. “There is much greater potential to reach people online than I imagined before, but it takes some thought and creativity to make a post truly viral.”
The full reach of their message will prove difficult to measure. Nonetheless, it marks the opening of a window exposing Jerusalem in all its colors and flavors to the world.
The detailed portrayal of daily life could never be communicated in a brochure. Even more importantly, the diversity of students participating in the JMS project, coming from a multitude of countries and active in dozens of different fields and areas of interest, means that their stories will echo through myriad communities that might be drawn to Jerusalem for a variety of reasons.
Closing his remarks to the students at the JMS event, Yoni Kaplan, vice provost at Rothberg, said: “Make no mistake. You can provide what no one else can – a true, authentic voice of your personal experience here. If your friends don’t hear about Jerusalem from you, they will hear about it from the media.”
Against the backdrop of the recent wave of violence throughout Israel, the capacity of projects like JMS to breach media bias and shed a positive light on life in Jerusalem is particularly indispensable.
“While the news talks of stabbings, these students are posting videos of nightly pub tours through Mahaneh Yehuda,” Kaptowsky boasts. “The feedback they received from all over the world was predominantly positive. People are very much surprised how vibrant life here is despite the terror.”
Having had a first glimpse of the unique project’s potential to open Jerusalem to the world, the creative minds behind JMS are already planning to expand to 60 new fellows with the opening of the spring semester.
The vision of a city drawing thousands of students from all corners of the earth, somewhat reminiscent of biblical prophecies, seems closer than ever to becoming a reality.
“It all begins and ends with people and their stories,” Yarkoni grins.