Students turn lens on Israel, with surprising results

Israeli-born Inbar Eliav, who lived in the Jewish state until she was 14, thought she knew the country well. But when the 17-year-old Palo Altan participated in the Bay Area’s Write On for Israel program, she saw her homeland through new eyes.


Inbar Eliav

“It’s not always obvious, as an Israeli, [why] people would want to make aliyah,” Eliav said. WOFI offered her a chance to further explore that theme and find out what motivates people to immigrate to Israel. The result is “Aliyah: Home Is Where the Heart Is,” a short film she created with four of her peers.


“Aliyah” is one of five films by members of the 2010-2011 WOFI cohort that will be shown at BlueStar’s For Israel Film Festival Dec. 11. The films, all five to seven minutes long, are the culmination of a year’s study by a select group of 25 high-school juniors and seniors. Students in WOFI, a collaborative effort of BlueStar and j. weekly, gain a strong background in Israeli and Jewish history and skills in critical thinking and journalism, meant to prepare them to advocate for Israel on college campuses and beyond.

The program includes a 10-day trip to Israel, during which the students conducted interviews and shot their films.

Michael Rosenfield, 16, reflected on the WOFI trip, his second visit to the Jewish state. “It made me see that Israel is more important than I thought it was,” he said.


Michael Rosenfield

Rosenfield, who lives in Hillsborough and had his bar mitzvah and confirmation at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, concluded that before WOFI, he “didn’t have all the facts.” Now he recognizes that “Israel is needed. It can’t be replaced. There are reasons for even non-Jews to support Israel.”



One of those reasons, Rosenfield discovered, is Israel’s high-tech innovation. A technology enthusiast (he worked at Google one summer and runs his own tech website), he was keen to investigate what makes Israel’s technology scene tick. Rosenfield and five partners made “Israel: A Nation of Innovation” and got the inside scoop.

Each person first read “Start-Up Nation,” the 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, “to get the political and cultural background,” Rosenfield said. Then the partners lined up interviews with the CEO and the head of research and development at Google Israel, “high ups” at Intel and the founder of Vonage. “We even interviewed Yossi Vardi!” he said excitedly about the teens’ coup in getting the entrepreneur considered to be the father of Israeli high-tech to sit down for an interview.


American-born kibbutznik Alex Wise points to Lebanon as he meets with Write On for Israel participants last summer.

Ryan Stouffer, WOFI’s technical adviser who teaches and assists the students with producing, directing and editing their films, is proud of their efforts. Stouffer, 29, who has worked with the program for 21⁄2 years, noted that “this year there were more phenomenal expert interviews.” He attributes this to the participants’ doggedness, as well as to good use of connections and even “dumb luck” at times.

That “dumb luck” and coincidence enabled the kids to benefit from unexpected experiences while working on the ground in Israel last summer. “They learned to be flexible and go where the story led them,” he said. “They overcame their timidity and gained the journalistic confidence to go up to people on the street and interview them. They learned that it’s important to do that, even if you get shot down a few times.”

In fact, he recalled that some of the best footage resulted from spur-of-the-moment meetings, such as when the members of a group working on “The Yafo Dynamic,” a film about Jewish-Arab coexistence in Jaffa, chatted at length with Jewish and Arab female activists.

The two other student-made films are “The Unexpected Soldier” (about foreigners and non-Jewish Israelis serving in the Israel Defense Forces) and “A New Leaf” (about Israel’s green movement). Stouffer believes there is no substitute for coming to Israel to shoot the films. “You can’t get these opinions elsewhere,” he said. “The kids’ eyes open up in Israel, it’s an incredible experience. They start out as novices and end up at the end of the year having matured and become articulate Israel advocates.”

Eliav was so inspired by the knowledge she gained — through the WOFI program, the filmmaking experience and attending the national AIPAC conference — that she plans to return to the Jewish state.

“I’m going back to Israel this coming summer after I graduate, and I am going to the army,” she said. “I’m going to try to get into the IDF’s spokespersons’ unit, because I’ve learned how important it is to speak out on behalf of Israel.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.