Peace. It’s a single, simple, sometimes dangerous word with boundless potential. Rarely do we hear the words “peace” and “Israel” in the same sentence without the word “hope” somewhere in the mix. For many, Israel provides the definition of anticipation as we gaze upon it with high expectations that it will soon formulate harmony. We too often hold it at a distance, and sometimes we shut it out, though we never truly take our eyes off of it. It remains in our concerns and we speculate about it, as though we crave to protect it but are denied the resources to do so.
While the inability to change is a perplexing hurdle for some, it is not the case for all. Teens are used to hearing the delegated opinions of politicians and journalists and adults, so I set out to explore the perspective of people of my generation, many of whom hold Israel’s well-being as a high priority. One such individual would be Sweet Home High School senior Sydney Bluman, a 17-year-old who had the opportunity to spend four months in Israel.
“It was amazing. I met so many friends that I’m so close with still,” Sydney said.
The program Sydney traveled with is the North American Federation of Temple Youth – Eisendrath International Exchange (NFTY-EIE). Through the program she was able to study with 35 classmates – 33 Americans, one Canadian and one South African – in Israel. Each day they would learn three hours of Jewish history, an hour and a half of Hebrew language, followed by the typical agenda of math, science, English and U.S. history.
“We’d usually have an interactive classroom, so we’d learn something in class and sit in the classroom for three hours, but then the next day we’d go to where it happened,” said Sydney about the study program. “So much history is in this land … A lot of it is very modern but a lot of it is also ancient.”
Alex Lazarus-Klein, a rabbi at Congregation Shir Shalom in Williamsville, would agree.
“When you go to a place like Israel, or other places in the Middle East or Europe, you have thousands of years of history, and when you walk down the streets you’re not just walking down thinking about George Washington or a couple hundred years ago, you’re really thinking of people thousands of years ago and how they must have lived and how they’re connected to your life,” he said.
Lazarus-Klein studied in Israel at different times over a three-year period. He says he hopes to return soon.
“In Israel people were very relaxed. You can walk around and go anywhere in the city,” he said about Jerusalem. “It’s got remarkable diversity.”
While many of us would certainly jump at the chance to visit the world’s most closely watched country, many others remind themselves of the ongoing conflict there. It isn’t hard to forget; Israeli violence makes appearances in the news on a regular basis.
Jessica Kent, a 25-year-old graduate of Williamsville North High School and a 2009 graduate of Brandeis University, advocates for peace in Israel. She has been to Israel on three occasions; once with family, once with a peer group, and the third time she went with a volunteer group.
“I volunteered in shelters, bomb shelters, in the northern part of Israel, right on the border of Lebanon,” said Kent about her most recent Israel visit in the winter of 2008. “I was doing cross-cultural volunteering between Arab Israelis and Palestinians and Jewish Israelis and outside volunteers trying to cultivate a community between them … It was a really eye-opening experience that I was privileged to have.”
Kent is an advocate for the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization based in Chicago that promotes cooperation among people of all faiths. She served as a national fellow in its inaugural program during college.
“Ultimately I think there’s a tremendous privilege and opportunity for high schoolers to learn more about themselves by learning about other people,” she said. “And one of the ways you can do that is not only opening the newspaper or checking out links on Facebook, but ultimately being really knowledgeable about our world, both in Buffalo and in Bosnia and in Boston and in Mumbai. Every city has its little niche and its drama, but the Middle East has a very strong hold on our future.”
Rina Tamir is a 17-year-old who lives in Netanya, Israel. Rina, a close friend of Sydney’s and a high school student, was able to provide insight on the situation she currently lives in.
“I won’t say that it isn’t scary; but with the years you learn how to live with it,” Rina said via email. “Most of the terror attacks happen in the south so I have never heard the alarms. I think growing up in Israel has made me a mature person.”
Rina said that even though the fighting does not happen near Netanya, where she lives with her parents and three brothers, they do display sympathy for those affected by the terror attacks by writing essays about the situation or wearing red clothes to school.
“My generation is educated to understand and respect the other,” she said. “As the next politicians and voters who choose them, we’ll determine Israel’s next moves.”
Sydney said the main difference between American teens and Israeli teens, while there are few, is their mindset after high school.
“In America we’re getting ready for college or planning what we’re going to do afterward, whether it’s join the military or take a year off and study or travel, and (Israeli teens’) mindset is that they’re going to go into the army,” Sydney said. “And some of them like it, but some of them just don’t want to do it.”
So from where will peace come, and what can we, who struggle for the proper words and tools, do about it?
“The important thing is just be careful what you see in the news,” said Lazarus-Klein. “Until you’re in a situation in that part of the world, you really can’t understand what’s going on there. I think that especially for the teenager or when you’re in your 20s, the opportunities to see the world and expand your mind will make you a better citizen in this country as well ... and understanding of how things work beyond Buffalo or beyond the United States.”
“These aren’t issues we can ignore … As our world moves forward with technology and medical improvements, the challenges are going to increase and the conflict will spike before it subsides. And the challenges will get bigger, the risks will get larger, but the outcome will be evermore so important,” said Kent. “We’ll realize that we can be strong and strengthen one another.”
When I asked Rina how she thought peace would come to her country, she was stumped. After taking a considerable amount of time to think about her answer, she managed a simple yet powerful idea: “Maybe time can fix everything.”
“Mohandas Gandhi has a really powerful quote about [change], and for a lot of people, it resonates in them,” said Kent. “And at the end of the day we have to be the change we hope to see in the world. And at the end of the day we have to be able to put our best foot forward, and if it doesn’t work try again and try again and try again.”
The message is clear: persistence, desire, connections, strength. Teens have so much to hope for, and we are the ones capable of changing the course of our world.
Rachel Whalen is a sophomore at Williamsville South High School.