Gary and Jeri Ann Jacobs are synonymous in San Diego with philanthropy, the Jewish community and youth education (and, of course, Qualcomm). In 2000, though, they entered into what has become perhaps one of their greatest endeavors yet, with the help of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County. Recently having completed its 10th year and now in preparation for its 11th, the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (more commonly known as JITLI) selects 10 local Jewish teens entering their junior year of high school to partake in a one-of-a-kind peacemaking process with teens in the heat of Israel’s Jewish-Arab conflict.
The San Diego teens spend two weeks in Israel developing leadership skills in the context of breaking stereotypes and building bridges with 10 Israeli Jewish teens and 20 Arab Israelis from various regions. (This is the Southern Division of JITLI. In its Northern Division, called JITLI Peacemakers, Jews from Mexico City represent the non-Israeli faction in a group including a different 10 Israeli Jews and 20 Arab Israelis.)
The responsibility participants take on is no small feat, says Yaacov Schneider, JITLI’s current director and San Diego’s shaliach through the Federation from 1997-2003. The work of preparing themselves for the trip and familiarizing themselves with the other cultures begins as soon as they’re selected and continues even after the trip is over.
JITLI is different from other peacemaking organizations in Israel in that it emphasizes building long-term relationships with neighbors, Schneider says.
“Shar HaNegev’s community [the home of one of the Israeli Jewish groups] and the neighboring Arab communities, without JITLI, basically didn’t know each other,” Schneider says. “The way we are doing it, which is a very intense and intimate way of getting to know your neighbor, the families and the two mayors got to know each other and teens’ social lives involve neighbors who, before JITLI, they didn’t know.”
The program has been so effective in building relationships between neighboring Jewish and Arab communities in Israel through teen leadership that, Schneider says, they want to expand to more regions in the country.
As a result of the program, one of the female Arab Israeli alumni was awarded a scholarship from JITLI, and she is now studying medicine at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Another alumnus from San Diego now works as a news editor at a television station, Schneider says, and his experience with JITLI plays a part in how he chooses to edit Middle East-related news. The experience also affects Israeli Jews as they enter the Army, he says. San Diegan Michael Sacks, a 2010 JITLI participant, says his JITLI experience brought his understanding of the Middle East conflict closer to the truth.
“Every day in the newspaper, I’d read about how two little Palestinian kids were shot by Israeli soldiers or how 20,000 rockets in the last year were sent into Israel, killing lots of people,” says Sacks, now a young counselor returning to plan the 2011 trip and mentor JITLI’s newest San Diego participants. “Everyone around me would say it was the media’s anti-Israel bias…but if you watch TV now, there’s a whole feeling of anti-Islam, whether it be on purpose or just the way we are in America. I really wanted to see the story through my own eyes and try to get up close and actually evaluate the Middle East conflict.”
And contrary to what Sacks says some people here in San Diego told him — that he was anti-Israel for participating — the trip, if anything, gave Israel the advantage simply based on the logistics of its itinerary being in Israel and the common language between the participants being English, which the Israeli participants didn’t know as well. It’s something Sacks, a senior at San Diego Jewish Academy, says he wants to improve for the 2011 trip, creating a more even balance between the Jewish and Arab participants.
“The conclusion I came to was that the Middle East conflict is something that won’t be solved through political discussions or through fighting a war, but instead by changing the culture of both the Israelis and the Arabs and understanding that what parents teach their kids unfortunately becomes the kids’ blind opinion…the only way this conflict will be solved is when both sides are willing to make more of a compromise and when kids are raised with more of an open mind.”
It’s this understanding that he’s bringing back to his peers and community in San Diego who have never had an Israeli experience like his.
“I think the most important part of JITLI is coming back and sharing your experience,” says Sacks, who now is considering majoring in international relations in college to become an ambassador for Israel to the United States. “I think one important thing people forget is that when you hear about an Arab person who bombed a building, it’s not a regular Arab. It’s not the regular Jewish person who killed a Palestinian family. It’s the extremes, and unfortunately, the way the media works, they show only the extremes, because that’s what the story is.”
The application deadline for the 2011 summer trip is Nov. 15. To download an application and for other information on JITLI, visit www.jitli.org or e-mail Michael Sacks at firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost is $2,500 per participant and is all-inclusive.