None of these volunteers had planned on being drafted into Israel’s public relations war when they first arrived here three months ago. They thought they were coming to intern at high-tech companies, government offices, nonprofit organizations and schools.
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But a week ago, when many of the cities and towns where they were working came under intense rocket fire, they were ordered to evacuate. Seeking something meaningful to do until tensions calmed, dozens of them responded to a call to mobilize on behalf of an Israeli campaign on that other very important battlefield: cyberspace.
As they gathered around a table in their makeshift war room last week, volunteers at the newly established International New Media Center in Jerusalem were bracing themselves for yet another day of battle. Their assignments were listed in bullet points on the board: Get up the new blog, choose a Facebook cover photo, upload videos to YouTube, finish up the poster and make sure all posts go viral (the last one followed by a punctuation mark for added emphasis).
All post-college age and mainly from the United States, they had come to Israel on the increasingly popular five-to-ten-month-long internship programs organized by Masa – a joint project of the Jewish Agency and the government that aims to strengthen the connection of young Jews abroad to Israel. Once the decision was taken a week earlier that no Masa interns would be allowed to reside within 40 kilometers of the Gaza border, roughly 600 of them were relocated overnight to other cities.
“We had nothing to do then and were kind of bored,” said 22-year-old Amy Wolfish from northern California, who had been working in Beersheba as a teaching intern and was happy to be given the opportunity to contribute to Israeli society in other ways.
A day after the ceasefire was declared, they returned back to their internships jobs but have decided to continue their virtual campaign to boost Israel’s image abroad, working from their laptops wherever they are.
Einat Dahari, a program director at Masa, said the mission of the new media center is to share with the world the stories and images of those individuals who come from elsewhere but are experiencing life as Israelis these days. “We felt that the government was already doing a great job of showing what Israelis were going through but that there were stories like these that weren’t being told,” she said.
The new media center was set up in coordination with the National Information Directorate, the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit.
The group that showed up late last week consisted of about a dozen volunteers, all except one from the United States. Their objective, according to 22-year-old Josh Neuman, of Walnut Creek, California, “is not so much to take a stance on the conflict” but to show the world the other side of life in Israel – that life goes on despite the rockets and missiles. “And I think that’s a very important message,” he added.
Each volunteer was assigned his or her own specific task. Max Mallet, for example, who hails from the Jersey shore, was collecting news stories about the conflict from media outlets around the world. “Some of the stories are just factual, while others are more subjective and portray Israel in a positive light,” he noted. “My job is to share these stories with our families and friends back home and with other former and future Masa volunteers.”
Melissa McCormack, from Danville, California, was the group videographer. She interviewed the volunteers about their experiences and their feelings about being in Israel at this time and then uploaded the clips to a special YouTube channel the group created.
Ashleigh Edelsohn, who comes from the San Francisco area, was in charge of the blog they created on Tumblr, appropriately titled “We are Here Israel.”
“One of the nice things about what we’re doing,” said Sarah DiStefano, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, “is that we’re putting faces on what’s happening here. People abroad can look at our blogs and videos and say ‘I know someone in harm’s way.’”
Neuman’s blog entry is typical of many of the thoughts these volunteers have been sharing in their online campaign. “Running for cover as a rocket alert sounded, watching children cowering in shelters crying for their mothers—seeing with my own eyes, this is how I began to see and feel things in an all new way, from the inside,” he wrote.
All this venting and sharing hasn’t necessary allayed their parents’ worst fears, though. In fact, Ally Shaw, one of the teaching interns, said she decided to cut her time in Israel short, under pressure from her family, and will be returning to her home in Minnesota this week.
“She’ll be back though,” Amy Altschuler of Houston, Texas, reassured the group.