Israel advocacy program for teens views funding loss as opportunity to grow

Taylor Edelhart had been to Israel before, as an eighth-grader, with her class from Brandeis Hillel Day School. She did “all the touristy things,” and had a lot of fun. But the trip she took the summer between her junior and senior years of high school was something else entirely.

“There was such a sense of purpose,” remembers the 18-year-old, a San Francisco resident who will attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as a freshman in the fall. “It was completely eye-opening.”

Edelhart is an alumna of Write On For Israel, an intensive year-and-a-half-long program that trains high school students to become advocates for Israel through journalism. The curriculum includes a 10-day trip to Israel to meet and engage with local newsmakers and community members in order to get a more well-rounded view of the country’s challenges, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Until now, WOFI was free of charge for participants. But due to a loss of funding from the Avi Chai Foundation, WOFI participants may see some changes over the next few years. Avi Chai plans to fund WOFI fully through the next school year, and partially for the following two years, in addition to helping fund a new development efforts for the youth group. Members of the next cohort will pay roughly $1,000 for the former two-year program, including the trip to Israel.

Shir Cohen (holding photo), Emma Goss (with pen) and other WOFI students conduct street interviews in San Francisco earlier this year.

Throughout the school year, WOFI participants hear from a range of speakers, including experts on Israeli history and Zionism, media analysts and educators. Through lessons designed to improve writing, rhetoric, critical thinking and public speaking skills, teens learn to advocate on Israel’s behalf — a toolkit program leaders say serves the students well as they transition into college.

“Any teen who enters this program has to be able to ask good questions, be open-minded and want to learn more,” says Jonathan Carey, the founder and executive director of BlueStar and WOFI in San Francisco. “This isn’t a free trip to ride a camel — these youth really engage with issues, and they’re seeking to better themselves, and they’re getting enmeshed in truly adult issues … What parents tell us is they know the program’s working when their son or daughter has real opinions at the dinner table.”

Founded in 2002 as a project of the Jewish Week of New York and funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, WOFI now operates in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco; in the Bay Area, the nonprofit BlueStar helps run the program.

Last year, the Avi Chai Foundation decided to spend down its endowments and go out of business. As a result, WOFI must become financially independent over the next few years.

Carey views the shift as an opportunity for innovation. The program has already secured contributions from more than 100 sources, including the Bay Area’s Koret Foundation and the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Foundation, Carey says. WOFI leaders are also designing new lesson plans and looking for opportunities to connect with established Bay Area programs. A program for adults is one result of last year’s brainstorming sessions.

“There were so many parents who used to say ‘Gosh, that sounds great, I wish I could do a program like that,’ ” Carey says. “So this program is for those adults in the community. We just finished our first semester, with 35 people, and they’re now working with a Swedish-Jewish visiting scholar at Stanford to help launch a pro-Israel effort in European cities.”

Carey is looking to connect with local universities, and is currently working with Berkeley Hillel to adapt the WOFI curriculum onto the U.C. campus. There also are plans afoot for an interactive, self-paced online curriculum that would be administered by educational coaches, so participants could be from anywhere — not just one of the four cities where WOFI currently resides.

The general goal, Carey says, is expansion.

“Right now we’re serving 110 teens nationally, and we want that to be 1,100,” he says. “We want to take what we’ve seen in terms of the power of transformation with this program and spread it on a larger scale.”

If recent graduates are any indication, they shouldn’t have trouble finding people to speak to the program’s effectiveness.

As an incoming college student, WOFI alumna Edelhart says the history, writing and critical thinking curriculum was just as meaningful and important for her as the Israel trip.

 “I came in thinking I kind of knew what was going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it became clear right away how much I didn’t know,” she says, adding that she hopes be part of a pro-Israel advocacy movement while at college.

As for teens just entering the program, she suggests they be ready to check their preconceived notions at the door.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid if opinions you held before are challenged,” Edelhart says. “And be ready to learn a lot.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.