‘Jerusalem Ambassadors’

‘Jerusalem Ambassadors’ tell their personal Israel journeys through social media to show the country’s positive side.

The ‘ambassadors’ with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (photo credit: Courtesy)
The ‘ambassadors’ with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Itzik Yarkoni, storytelling is second nature. When the world began to take notice of Israel, often in a negative political context on social media, Yarkoni decided to do what he knows best: Rather than advocate for Israel through political means, he decided to take on the task of representing Israel on social media platforms.
Between Facebook, Twitter and blogging, Yarkoni has successfully created a brand that does just that. BOMAH – the Brand of Milk and Honey, the fruition of Yarkoni’s dream, is a business intended to expose various groups of people to social media platforms to help them tell their story.
In the case of Jerusalem, this means assisting foreign Hebrew University students, spending a semester at the Rothberg International School, return to their home campuses armed with social media tools to help them spread the story of Israel and “what its really like,” Yarkoni says.
Yarkoni spent the 2010-11 school year as the Israel fellow at the University of California – Irvine, and was amazed at how little the students knew about the Jewish state. He realized it was misrepresented in many ways, and didn’t feel the current strategies to combat such sentiments were sufficient.
“People these days are spending all day on their computers. People turn to Facebook and Twitter to see what’s happening in the world and in Israel,” he explained.
Yarkoni realized that all those traveling to Israel with organized trips such as Masa and Birthright were missed opportunities for Israel to be positively and properly represented in the media. Many students have hundreds of Facebook “friends” from throughout their lives – elementary-school classmates, high-school friends, neighbors – and Yarkoni believed that having tourists document their personal Israel journeys was a unique way for the Jewish state to be cast in a good light.
This was especially true for a world without much exposure to Israel, in which people only know the political aspects of Israel and haven’t seen the beautiful country with their own eyes.
“The concept of storytelling is that people come and have amazing experiences here. They should share their story,” says Yarkoni.
The fruition of the Jerusalem Ambassadors program at the Hebrew University was just that. Hundreds of students – many non-Jewish – come from all over the world to Jerusalem for a semester abroad during their time as university students. Those hundreds of students have the opportunity to share their journey in Israeli on their social media accounts with all of their followers back home.
The university’s Rothberg International School was excited by the prospect and hoped that having students share their stories with other students from their home campuses would draw additional students. The university then partnered with BOMAH, Masa and the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to create the Jerusalem Ambassadors program.
The program comprises eight meetings during the semester.
Spring semester 2014, which is about to come to a close, saw 13 overseas student participants from China, Turkey, Australia, the US, Canada and Mexico. They were taught how to brand their semester- long experiences on social media through blogs and Facebook posts, for their friends and family back home to see.
The second part of the program takes place when the students return to their home campuses. They are expected to participate as ambassadors in sessions about Israel and the Rothberg International School, to draw students in and educate about Israel. As a reward for their work on their campuses, they will be given a free trip back to Israel.
Yarkoni, the project manager, also sees value in blogging on a personal level. “When a student blogs, it gives them time to reflect on their journey, giving more meaning to the trip,” he explains.
“When their friends and family take notice of their photos and words, they get to talk about it, and having friends take an interest makes it more exciting.”
Noa, a participant from Beijing, says she came to Rothberg because she majors in Hebrew at Peking University back home. She says prior to the program she was less familiar with social media and their powerful effect, and has gained a lot from her experience so far as a Jerusalem Ambassador.
“I post my pictures from my trip on Renren, the Chinese version of Facebook,” she explains. “I find that my pictures have a greater effect and my friends at home take notice of them, more than when I blog with words.”
The program also has strategies in place to help each blog gain exposure, such as asking all the participants to share each other’s blogs on Facebook or their home social media platform, casting a wider net of friends who may click on the posts. Additionally, bloggers send their posts to their local schools’ offices abroad, and to their communities back home.
“Imagine if we have thousands of visitors to Israel, not just students, writing positive things about Israel. There is real potential here,” Yarkoni says. “I have no problem if a student’s blog expresses some amount of negativity towards something particular that bothers them about Jerusalem. Bureaucratic things in Israel are notoriously difficult, but overall, the blogs appear to be happy and positive.”