My name is Alexa Plotkin and I am a member of Cohort 7. Although I am only halfway done with my official 2-year journey in icnext I feel as though I have learned enough for a lifetime. Not only is this the type of experience that is extremely important, fun and rewarding, but colleges will also love to see it on your application. The first nine-or-so months of the program involve a once a month, all-day Sunday, meeting to discuss Israeli politics, Arab-Israeli conflicts, Jewish connections within Israel and America, and how Americans can learn to advocate on behalf of Israel. Then, during the summer you take a two week long adventure in Israel very different from nearly any other Israel trip. Instead of covering ourselves in mud near the Dead Sea, we learned about the ecological problems affecting the Dead Sea. Instead of climbing Masada, our bus climbed the hills where the Syrian border stood before the Independence Day War. Instead of hearing about the different types of people that live in Israel, unique in religion, observance, language, and ethnic backgrounds, we actually go into these villages to see it for ourselves. To add even more, behind these unforgettable experiences are an amazing group of people you cannot help but become friends with. These friendships even go international, with the amazing hosting opportunity halfway through the year. Each person gets the chance to host an Israeli teenager for about a week during the month of April, and then be able to stay at this person’s house during the summer trip to Israel! After all of this, a second year continuation of the program compels you to expand upon the ideas that you have learned, share them with our community and apply them to your own life. Truly a unique experience, I urge each one of you to apply for icnext!
The hardest part about writing a summary of a trip is recollecting everything that transpired. Now, reflecting on this voyage, I am faced with two options. Do I dig into the deep recesses of my brain to regurgitate aimless facts about our speakers and the regions we visited? A formidable task, as I could barely keep the days straight DURING the trip. The second, and more pragmatic method, is to simply “check the sourcebook.” This trip, like any other, began at the airport. After two fairly nondescript flights, we landed at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. From there, we checked in at Maccabim, and met our first speaker, Zeev Ben-Shachar, who spoke about modern Israeli history and tested our knowledge of regional conflicts. The next day we were off to Ben Gurion University, where we met Dr. Guy Ben Porat, a professor who introduced us to the central modern societal problems of Israel, like the influential and all-powerful rabbinate, as well as the past election and Haredi military service. Then we went to visit the Negev, and learned that despite its reputation as a dry and underdeveloped region, a substantial amount of technological advancements take place there. Our visit to Yad Vashem the next day was probably the most emotional part of the trip for everyone. The way that our tour guide tied together different parts of the exhibit into one complete narrative was eye opening to say the least. I learned one fact from my host family which truly opened my eyes to the suffering that transpired during the Holocaust. The mother of the family led tours at Yad Vashem in the past, and she pointed out a main difference between the museums in Israel and Washington D.C. In Washington D.C. a train is available for people to enter 12 at a time, but at Yad Vashem, the train is on display only. This is because the designers of Yad Vashem thought it was disrespectful for people to think they could relate to the suffering of those who were originally put into those trains, by simply being placed in a cramped environment. Later that day we went on a tour of the Orthodox Neighborhood with Toby Abrams, and witnessed the dichotomy between the Orthodox and their secular neighbors. As we walked through alleys, we were pointed at, whispered about, and insulted. An interesting experience, this tour gave me an insight into the orthodox neighborhoods in Israel that I had previously lacked. The next day contained two main highlights; We went to the shuk, a Jerusalem market, and met our Israeli hosts in Beit Shean. Then it was Friday. We spent most of the day with the Israeli teens swimming at a spring, and the next few days, called the Mifgash, were just a chance for us to experience daily life in the eyes of an Israeli teen. This was my favorite part of the trip, since it offered the opportunity to study side by side the two different worlds in which we live. The way in which we were welcomed into their homes with open arms was a unique experience and certainly one you don’t get with just any program. After the Mifgash ended it was back to the bus. We visited an IDF base and learned more about life on the bases. We were lectured about the strides the IDF has made to include more people in the program, such as language programs and programs for those with learning disabilities. Monday, we traveled to Jisr A-Zarka, the only Arab community in Israel that sits on the coastline. We met the teens in that community, and saw how much they resembled the Israeli teens that we stayed with. That night we went to a play, completely in Hebrew, with an English translation on screens on both sides of the stage. The following day we visited another shuk, and had a scavenger hunt activity all over the city of Tel Aviv. Personally, this was my favorite night of the trip, since we were joined by our new Cleveland Shin Shinim, and had a chance to see the city the way Israelis do. For our last full day, we reconnected with Elinoy Kisslove, a graffiti artist that we met in Cleveland, and then went to the Idan Raichel concert. It ended earlier than expected, so our cohort, thoroughly exhausted, returned to the Ruth Daniel hotel in Tel Aviv to sleep. This was so much more than just a trip for us. We experienced Israel as students and insiders. The structure was such that we got a taste of everything, and, at least in my case, the trip left me hungry for more. I learned so much about the political climate, traditions, and social conventions. I look forward to meeting with the other members of ICNEWS and the advocacy group in the coming year!
Part One – Why it took me two weeks to write a blog… Ok. So I was supposed to write this blog a long time ago, but then I stayed in Israel for 3 extra days, without access to a computer. Tina texted me asking me to write the blog, and I said that I would on Sunday evening, when I was scheduled to arrive back in Cleveland, and therefore would have access to my computer. But then Max, Rylan and I went on a wild adventure. As we were traveling home from Israel, we just missed our connecting flight from Newark to Cleveland. We had to sleep in an unaccompanied minors room in the Newark airport which we technically weren’t allowed to sleep in (We had Wendy’s at the airport, and I had never been to Wendy’s before. This being my first time at Wendy’s, I felt the need to try their signature drink: The Frosty. I gotta say: Overrated. More overrated than Markelle Fultz in the 2017 draft. I mean seriously, how does a man that led a 9-22 team in college end up as the #1 pick!? Anyway, milkshakes should be possible to consume with a straw). Luckily for us, our sleep in that room didn’t last long, as we had to get up at 4 to catch our flight to Chicago, which then had a connection to Canton. Anyway, I got home Monday morning and I did not feel like writing the blog. Then my family and I left for Michigan less than 24 hours later. My grandparents have this cabin on Walloon Lake that is just awesome, but it does not have wifi, so I couldn’t write my blog there either. And now, a few days removed from getting back, Amnon sent me a very Amnon-y text asking me to write this blog. So here you go Amnon, are you happy now??? Part Two – What I Learned in Israel or in short: Father, you were right… (Quick note of clarification to anyone reading this: The title of this section of the blog was Amnon’s doing. I take no responsibility for that ridiculousness). I have a lot of thoughts about this program, and the people we talked to, and the places we went, and our respective host families, and the three days that Rylan, Max and I stayed after, and really the country as a whole, but if I were to vocalize all of those thoughts then this blog would be book length, and I don’t have a publication deal, so I’m not willing to put in that work. But I will say the following: As part of our duties of being guests in our host families homes, Amnon made us interview and photograph two members of the household, because Amnon hates us having fun (that pool was 3 feet deep Amnon. You were much more a risk to my health than that pool was). So anyway, I interviewed Yoray and his mother, Sophia. A quick aside: Yoray stayed with me for most of the time the Israeli teens were in Cleveland. I don’t know if Amnon vetted our partners or anything before he assigned them to us, but Yoray was a perfect match for me. He was a chill, super nice guy, who was insanely into basketball, which, if you know anything about me, is an interest that we absolutely shared. The guy wakes up at 4 AM to watch NBA games sometimes. That’s dedication. We probably played 6 hours of the NBA2k19 video game while he was at my house, and I won almost every game we played (he would blame it on the controller, but c’mon, PS4s and Xbox One’s aren’t THAT different). But this blog isn’t about Cleveland, so I’ll skip to him hosting me. Yoray and his family live on a Kibbutz called Maoz Haim, and they just totally made me feel like a legitimate part of the community. We chilled and played basketball and swam and hung out with his Kibbutz friends, and it was easily the most fun part of the trip. He also lives next door to a very close friend of his, Iftach, who also happens to be a part of the icnext program, and was hosting Eli and Isaiah. So the 5 of us hung out for a lot of the weekend as well, and that was also a blast. His mom made amazing food, including a Friday night dinner that felt similar to one of my families’ own, ironically without the prayers. By the end of the weekend, I had impressed Yoray’s little brother with my limited Hebrew and hopefully converted him to a lifelong Cavs fan, while also growing close with the rest of his family. So, anyway, back to the interviews. The questions on the interview were all political, which, I’ll admit, made me mildly uncomfortable. I think that I am definitely on the left side politically in terms of the Americans in icnext, and I assumed that I would disagree with a lot of the opinions that my hosts held. I was both right and wrong in this line of thinking. I was right in that I disagreed quite a bit with what my hosts said. Yoray’s mother identified herself as a centrist, but seemed to choose the most right wing option on all of the questions. Yoray himself identified as right wing, and had nearly identical answers to his mom. But here’s where I was wrong: I was wrong to be uncomfortable about it. I have plenty of friends who disagree with me politically, especially when it comes to the Israel issue, and I thought it would be a little different seeing as I was an American and they were Israelis, but it really wasn’t. Yoray felt like one of my friends that I disagreed with, and his family felt the same. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that friendship and peace and love can solve this conflict, as much as my Dad would dislike me disagreeing with that. Some of the stuff said when we visited the Ohio State campus and by some of the speakers we met in Israel and by the Israeli kids who hosted us, and, hell, even the kids in our cohort, showed me that this problem is probably not close to being solved. Nor will this be an easy task to accomplish. I also read Ben’s outstanding blog about our visit to Jisr Az Zarqa and his conversations with Ahmad, one of the kids we met (if you haven’t read it yet go read it now right here). Just by looking at this guy you could tell he was bright, but what Ben didn’t tell you is that this kid graduated high school years early and got a grant to work on physics projects at a college. I read Ben’s blog, and I saw Ahmad’s take on the conflict between Arabs and Israelis, and two things struck me about it. The first thing was that I thought he was absolutely right. Ahmad framed it as an honor fight for Arabs, but I think it is just as much about honor for Jews. And I also think he is absolutely right about the difficulty, or even near impossibility, in solving disputes motivated by honor, which, by the way, applies to everything from war between nations to personal relationships and friendships and even pickup basketball foul calls. But here’s my second take on it: That is terrifying. It is terrifying that a mind clearly as intelligent, or dare I say brilliant, as Ahmad’s looks at this situation and looks at the pride involved and sees it as a good thing. It is equally terrifying (to me at least) that smart American Jews and Israelis look at the same situation and come away thinking the same thing, with the only difference being which side it is in support of. Amnon wanted this post to be positive, though, and I’m very happy to end it that way. The thing about conflicts involving pride is that they can be broken down and solved, but only after the pride is put through a colander, with only the positive roots of the pride coming out. When this happens, you can understand the other perspective, and empathy is a powerful weapon when it comes to coming to compromises with regards to conflicts. Some people may doubt the legitimacy of this statement, but they’re wrong. To see the validity of my point, you just need to open up your eyes. Go watch the movie Daddy’s Home and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Or think about how James Harrison played in a Super Bowl FOR the Patriots. James Harrison! You know who was ⅔ of LeBron’s point guard rotation last year? Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo! For those of you who don’t watch basketball, those two weren’t exactly known for having the best relationship with LeBron before they joined the Lakers. The third member of that rotation was Lonzo Ball, a man whose father publicly feuded with LeBron the year before. Now, LeBron did dump Lonzo and Lance for Anthony Davis, but that’s besides the point. If you want a more legitimate example, look at my friendship with Yoray and my appreciation for his family. I guess what I’m saying is that I gained a lot of knowledge of different perspectives on this trip, and overall, this experience made me believe that friendship and peace and love is a way, and perhaps the only way, to solve this immense, deep-rooted, pride filled conflict. Which is exactly what my Dad says. Shoot. I hope you’re proud of me. Signing off (hopefully for good this time),