When Ashleigh Edelsohn moved to Israel for a teaching fellowship, the East Bay native didn’t expect to become accustomed to rockets falling. Nor did she expect to become a social media maven in the name of defending the Jewish state.
But that’s exactly what happened after violence escalated between Israel and Gaza starting Nov. 14.
Edelsohn, 24, became part of a cohort of young people from all over the world who formed an impromptu “digital hasbara” team. The aim was to document their experiences in the Jewish state and spread awareness about the conflict from the perspectives of outsiders living in the Jewish state.
The Hebrew word “hasbara” translates to “explanation,” but the word is used in Israel to describe government efforts to promote the Jewish state in the face of negative press.
“It was basically three days in a conference room with our computers, just trying to do every kind of social media thing we could think of to get the word out about the situation in the south,” Edelsohn said. “It was really quite interesting to hear these different perspectives from not just Americans, but fellows from Russia, Canada. We had a Brazilian fellow, two from France and so on.”
A Moraga native and U.C. Santa Cruz graduate, Edelsohn now resides in Beersheva, the southern Israeli city that’s a frequent target of attacks launched from Gaza.
She moved there in August to begin a 10-month contract with Israel Teaching Fellows through Masa, a joint program of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Education that aims to strengthen connections between Israel and young Jews in the diaspora. She’d been teaching fourth through sixth grade for just over two months when the violence escalated.
“You live with the community, you get to know the children and the parents and even the checkout ladies at the grocery store … so it was really hard for many of us, myself included, when [program organizers] said we had to leave,” said Edelsohn, who was evacuated from the region by Masa on Nov. 14, almost immediately after the Israel Defense Forces killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and Hamas retaliated.
“After that, the rockets just started falling in the dozens,” she recalled. “I think that night there were 15 rockets in 10 minutes. We were told, ‘We’re evacuating tonight, take enough clothes for three days.’ ”
Once Masa program leaders decided that no fellows should be within 25 miles of the Gaza border, roughly 600 were relocated to other cities, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
She and other fellows traveled by bus to Netanya, outside Tel Aviv, for a few days, and then finally to Jerusalem, where a team of about two dozen of them went to work in what was tabbed the “Masa situation room.” The effort was under the guidance of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
As the conflict played out on the Web, fellows aimed to make sure that pro-Israel voices were as loud as the anti-Israel roaring. They worked on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media campaigns. Edelsohn helped launch a Tumblr page (www.wearehereisrael.tumblr.com) on which fellows tell their personal stories about why they are in Israel through blog entries and videos.
Josh Neuman, another member of the hasbara team from the Bay Area, wrote of his experiences in Beersheva.
“Returning home [to the U.S.] after becoming so involved with my program in Israel simply isn’t a viable option,” wrote Neuman, who grew up in Walnut Creek.
“I chose my program to give back to Israel as well as to understand what it means to be an Israeli, and this is the real Israel experience … running for cover as a rocket alert sounded, watching children cowering in shelters crying for their mothers — seeing with my own eyes, this is how I began to see and feel things in an all new way, from the inside.”
Edelsohn said the group is trying to keep the social media campaign going even after a cease-fire was reached last week.
“We’re looking for personal stories from people who are living here on a Masa program, who are experiencing [life in Israel] every day,” she said. “I’m still searching for the words to describe all this.”
Edelsohn says about half of her friends on the Masa program returned to their home countries, usually under pressure from their parents. She feels lucky that her parents, while concerned, have understood her desire to stay put.
“I couldn’t wait to get home to Beersheva, to reconnect with my friends and be in my city, to get back to teaching,” said Edelsohn, who returned there the night of Nov. 24. “Though it’s hard to watch some of the kids try to understand this situation when they don’t have the words for it.”
A few days ago, one of her 10-year-old students showed her a picture he had drawn of a city with a rocket falling on it, and another city with an Iron Dome trying to stop rockets.
“Seeing that was like a kick in the stomach,” she said. “I know it’s their reality, but it shouldn’t be.
“I still feel really lucky to be on this program, to make a difference, to have the chance to learn and teach and grow. At the end of the day, I’m doing more learning than teaching.”