Stuck in the Middle with Youby Natalie Jacobs August 27, 2015
“I’ve been hearing about the conflict, obviously, pretty much all my life,” says Gabriel Bloch, a 17 year-old who goes to a public high school now after attending the San Diego Jewish Academy for k-8th grade. That change opened Gabriel up to a wide range of opinions on the State of Israel and the Jews who run it.
“A lot of my friends who I never knew were paying attention to the conflict in Israel were actually kind of involved in it. They have very extreme perspectives. Some of them are very pro-Israel, some of them are very anti-Israel. … I’ve always had only a one-sided view.”
Conversations grew louder amongst his peer group during last summer’s month-long battle between Israel and Hamas, especially when it became clear that many civilians were caught in the crossfire.
“Seeing the anti-Israel perspective was very interesting for me,” Gabriel says diplomatically. “I always wanted to see [the conflict in Israel] first-hand and not be spoon-fed information…just kind of get in there and talk to both sides and really make my own mind up on what’s happening there.”
By midway through his high school career at North County’s Canyon Crest Academy, two of Gabriel’s friends had gained that first-hand experience in Israel with the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI). From what they said of their experience with the year-long program (which culminates in a trip to Israel for American Jews, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs), it seemed to address some of the new questions which, up to that point, Gabriel had been stuck asking himself.
JITLI was created by the Qualcomm heirs in 2000 in conjunction with the San Diego Jewish Federation. It started as a business proposition. Jewish donors in San Diego were concerned that the money they gave to Federation was sent from San Diego to the national organization that then passed the donations along to various agencies in Israel that finally spent the money on projects of their choosing. Donors here wanted a “closer connection to Israel,” Gary Jacobs, who is managing director of Jacobs Investment Company, says. In Federation fashion, a delegation was sent to Israel to explore the options. From a helicopter ride atop the country, the group saw Shar HaNegev, a small and struggling Israeli border town with a few kibbutzim running along the fence between them and Gaza.
“This is 1999, 2000,” Gary says, “Camp David is about to happen. Peace, in theory, is around the corner. So our idea was to get all the teenagers in the area together so that when the fences came down they’d want to go to each other’s homes and interact with each other.”
Of course, peace didn’t happen and the fence still stands, but so does the program that the Jacobses and their Federation fellows devised. In the 15 years since it began, JITLI has gone through many logistical permutations but the basic idea is the same – get young people, neighbors who otherwise have little to no interaction with each other, together in a safe place that encourages debate and the open exchange of ideas. And then throw Americans into the mix in hopes of creating a more well-rounded connection to Israel for diaspora Jews.
The first three JITLI groups included 10 American Jewish teens, all juniors in high school, 10 Israeli Jewish teens, 10 Bedouin participants, and 10 Palestinian teenagers from Gaza. In 2004, Hamas took over Gaza and the program hasn’t been able to have those teenagers involved since. But, Jerri-Ann says, some of the Arab participants who live in Israel consider themselves Palestinian, who, in some cases, come on the trip to “validate their hatred of Jews.”
“But once they’ve been on [the trip] and they start to interact, you can see the change happening,” Gary says.
In San Diego, the application process involves a written submission and an interview with Jerri-Ann and a panel of program alumni.
“We’re looking for the leader that can influence their peers. We want this to be viral, in their terminology,” Gary says with a laugh.
“The Americans are still in San Diego so they can spread the word to their friends,” Jerri-Ann says, explaining how they decided to open the program only to juniors in high school. “The Bedouins still have another year of school and they can tell their friends what they did this summer. They’re also not so young so they can understand a little bit more, but not too old where they’re already set in their ways.”
“They’re old enough to understand the issues and young enough that the adults haven’t completely corrupted them,” Gary adds.
When we speak two months before he departs for Israel, Gabriel Bloch explains the line he’s walking along as a Jewish teenager in a secular school with a variety of friend groups and family members with a host of opinions.
“I don’t have any specific perspective on it right now,” he says. “I’ve been told things, but I haven’t really seen it first hand so, I dunno. That’s the whole reason why I want to go. I am kind of expecting to come back with definitely very different ideas than what I’ve thought of here.”
Maybe it’s the jetlag, but when we speak four days after he’s returned from the trip, Gabriel’s voice sounds different, lacking the youthfully enthusiastic lilt it had before the trip. He’s pensive, still digesting the trip and he chooses his words like a young politican might, carefully but with sincerity.
“My experience was very…different…I think,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t just about the connections I made with other people there, it was also about how I as a person grew and how my inner-self changed while I was there.”
Gabriel has family in Israel, so he’s been many times. But he says his Israeli family-members are “super-patriotic Israelis” so they painted a very specific picture of who and what Arabs are. On the JITLI trip, Gabriel co-habitated with real Arabs for 16 days.
“To go in and to see what is actually happening first hand with my own eyes and be amongst it was really cool because I didn’t have to listen to anyone, I just had to look and listen and I could shape my own opinion based on what I was experiencing and not through the filter of other people.”
Both Gary and Jerri-Ann are realistic about the impact of the JITLI program, but idealism manages to creep into our conversation once or twice.
“In my view, I believe more in opening up communication between neighbors who don’t usually meet each other. Which will hopefully have an end result of…I’m not going to use the word peace because that’s not…”
“Well,” Gary chimes in as Jerri-Ann stops herself short of an elaborate tangent, “this is also a long-term investment because they’re juniors in high school. As we tell them, horny teenagers are not going to solve world peace in two weeks or three weeks. The idea is, let’s create these connections, let’s get them to understand each other’s stories so as they grow into a leadership role, they’ll have a different perspective on what’s going on.”
“I could talk a bunch about how I think a lot of things are messed up in Israel,” Gabriel says during our post-trip talk. “Obviously everyone knows a lot of things are messed up in Israel. But what I want to talk about more is how Israel is affecting the lives of its citizens. That’s what really matters. It’s not Israel, it’s the people. That’s what I got on the trip, I got to experience the people. I got to talk to a diverse group of people – extremists, kind of, on both sides.”
The first days of the trip are spent on ice-breakers and getting-to-know-you activities meant to help the kids remember that they’re kids and although they live on opposite sides of the world, or a fence, with different traditions and years of conflict that stand between them, they actually have a lot in common.
As the trip travels from the north into Jerusalem, the topics heat up and the kids, who have arrvied at some common ground with each other, start to get into the details of what separates them. Namely for Gabriel’s group, religion.
“There was a lot of tension there because half the group was Islamic and they are very strict about their religion,” Gabriel says. “One of the kids, which surprised me, said he would die for the Quran. It’s just insane because I don’t think any one of the Jews would have died for their religion on the trip.”
Gabriel considered most of the American Jews secular, the Israeli Jews slightly more religious, and the Bedouins “religiously religious,” as he put it.
“But my ideas about my religion were not changed,” he says. “I was not pushed or persuaded in any way to think differently about Judaism. Definitely my perceptions of Islam changed a lot. I didn’t know anything about the religion before and everyone always said terrorists and these things. You hear so much that it becomes truth and then you’re there and they’re such peaceful, loving and caring people and you’re like where did this go wrong? Where did this information go wrong coming to me?”
When we spoke, Gabriel had already begun preparing to for next year’s JITLI program, where he’ll serve as a counselor.
To learn more about the JITLI program, visit jitli.org.