Roving ambassadors

It’s common for Israelis, upon completing their army service, to backpack around the world.

Workshop 521 (photo credit: Roni Pelleg)
Workshop 521
(photo credit: Roni Pelleg)
It’s common for Israelis, upon completing their army service, to backpack around the world before going on to university or vocational training. Now, an experimental, interactive, two-day program launched in August is aiming to prepare them for the experience. “Now is the moment for individual Israelis to take bold and courageous steps to build constructive communication, business connections and strong relationships with people all over the world,” says Natalie Gourvitch, founder and executive director of TrailTalks.
The new enterprise – developed with the Center for Leadership Initiatives, a boutique consulting firm – is meant to help young backpackers develop meaningful international relationships while advising them on how to better represent Israel abroad.
Born to Israeli parents and raised in New York City, Gourvitch, a 25-year-old Oxford graduate, traveled often between Israel and the US during her childhood and teen years.
“I grew up having to translate the reality of one culture to another,” she comments.
In recent years, however, “Israel’s very legitimacy has been called into question,” and she sees an “urgent need” for better cross-cultural communication.
“Opinion polls show that [Israel] lacks acceptance in Europe, Australia and Canada and lacks esteem in the US,” she says. “More important, 91 percent of Israelis themselves feel the country suffers a ‘severe’ or ‘very severe’ image problem in the world.”
While studying in England and traveling as a backpacker in South America, she observed “inadvertent misunderstandings… between Israelis and their international peers. In one such instance, I witnessed Israelis communicating in a style that they deemed direct, honest and straight-shooting, only to be understood by Brits to be rude and aggressive. Equally, the Brits intended to be polite, only to be understood by Israelis as being disingenuous. Mix in any kind of political reference, and it was a recipe for disaster, where cultural misunderstandings often closed the door to dialogue before it even began and negative conceptions were exacerbated.”
It was this scenario that inspired the creation of TrailTalks, and Gourvitch spent several months fund-raising to make in happen. In an article published this past autumn in Oxford University’s alumni magazine, she explained the impetus for the program.
According to Gourvitch, if young travelers “could leverage the uniquely powerful opportunities they have to exchange their individual perspectives, learn from each other and seed dynamic and enduring relationships, not only would they be prepared for their increasingly globalized future, but they could seed dynamic and meaningful relationships that would reverberate across the wider international community.”
Exercises such as role-playing are incorporated into the program to help broaden the participants’ creative thinking and social awareness.
“When I was in university, I was struck by how my peers’ perspective of Israel was based so much on what they saw in the media,” she tells The Jerusalem Post. “Negative Israelis confirmed their negative viewpoint.
We don’t put pressure to talk about Israel, but you’re an ambassador whether you like it or not.”
As an example of anti-Israel sentiment around the world, she mentions having witnessed signs at hostels saying that Israelis were not welcome. However, “I would be hard-pressed to believe it’s based on anti- Semitism,” she says. “Israeli backpackers in particular have had this reputation for being loud, leaving a mess…. Even if you’re the most polite Israeli, it impacts you as well.”
“As we saw last spring and summer, especially in the Middle East, young people have the ability to change the world,” she tells supporters, adding that TrailTalks has been working together with Lametayel (a combination bookshop and camping store specializing in travel books and maps), High Q and Taglit- Birthright Israel to market the program to its target audience.
The program established “a web-platform with a robust interactive interface that will engage travelers while abroad. And we will seed an alumni network so we can create a real shift in the way the next generation of Israelis views and engages in an international, diverse and pluralistic world,” she says.
THE PILOT program included 21 participants in the first session and 13 in the second – all in their 20s and hailing from across the country. Within the diverse group were two Arab Israelis and an American immigrant, as well as members of the national-religious camp who sought advice about keeping Shabbat and Jewish dietary laws while traveling abroad.
Yotam Constantini, 21, recently completed his service in the IDF and left at the end of December for a five-month journey to Japan and the US. He credits TrailTalks with “opening my mind to different approaches to the trip – not just looking at the sites, but at the people, meeting the culture itself and finding new ways to communicate.”
He notes that “Israeli culture is somewhat up-front, and we discussed ways to relate to those from less upfront cultures.”
Among the topics raised, he says, was how preconceptions could be deceiving. “How do we automatically see and define and approach other people? I really related to that part of the workshop because I traveled to London three months ago for a couple of weeks. As soon as I said I was Israeli, I got negative vibes. They assumed I was probably racist. I’m not so sure it’s anti-Semitism. I think a bit of it is ignorance, only hearing part of the story, the media.”
He says that “the workshop was designed to benefit the traveler, but the added bonus could be the chance to represent Israel positively. I really believe that the same way Birthright changed the way many Jews see Israel, this program could affect the way people from other countries see Israel.”
He gives an example of a workshop simulation activity. One tourist could be asked: “Oh, you were a soldier in Israel. How does it feel to live in an apartheid state?” According to Constantini, “instead of getting defensive, ask where they got that notion, open up, talk about yourself. You’re a person, just like they are.”
Constantini, who plans to study the exact sciences after his travels, adds that “if even half of the Israelis traveling abroad would attend a program [like TrailTalks], it could have an amazing effect.” Ortal Segal, also 21, will be heading to India and South America in the spring for several months. She, too, has just completed her army service. She said she especially values the TrailTalks social forum, recounting that “we spoke to people who have lots of experience and different perspectives. There never was anything like that before for young people.”
The sessions were mostly interactive, she explains. They taught “how to form a connection, how to speak to people from other backgrounds, how to represent Israel, whether on buses, in restaurants… and how to be an emissary of Jews and Israelis and to give a positive impression to people who don’t know our culture, to build communication.”
Segal is leaning toward studying psychology and communications upon her return, and might want to volunteer abroad for an organization such as the Jewish Agency.
“A good connection could work both ways,” she points out. “They might want to come here, too. It opens doors.”
Also appreciative of Gourvitch’s efforts is ROI, a network of Jewish innovators from around the world (ROI stands for “return on investment”; also, ro’eh is Hebrew for “shepherd,” which in Jewish tradition symbolizes a position of leadership). A ROI fellow, Gourvitch recently attended the five-day 2011 ROI Ibero-American Gathering in Argentina with approximately 50 young Jewish social entrepreneurs from 15 Latin American countries.
Says Justin Korda, ROI’s Jerusalem-based executive director, “Training Israelis to become more aware of their surroundings and the way that they can contribute to the betterment of Israel’s image around the world is a very powerful goal.”