As most people who care about Israel know, it’s difficult to have conversations about the Jewish homeland without broaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is why StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization that focuses on on-campus advocacy, along with the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently launched an initiative involving employees of Israel’s seldom-discussed private business sector in leading discussions around the world that are focused on the brighter side of Israel — the food, the partying, the in-your-face feel-good vibe of Israelis.
The program, dubbed Blue and White El Al Ambassadors, brings pilots and flight attendants who work for El Al airlines, one of Israel’s largest private companies, to visit college campuses, synagogues, Federation programs — even churches — around the world for informal conversations with students, congregants and others over Israeli chow.
During their layover in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, flight attendants Danny Young, 25, of Tel Aviv; Hagay Ashkenazi, 45, of Har Adar; Noa Renert, 50, of Reut; and Efrat Rael-Brook, in her late 30s, of Ra’anana, spoke with approximately 25 California State University, Northridge (CSUN), students at the university’s Hillel. The brainchild of El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy, the program has enlisted approximately 60 staff members of El Al, out of hundreds who applied, who have volunteered to be cultural ambassadors for Israel. Since starting approximately three months ago, they have participated in nearly 30 events, in New York, New Jersey, Toronto and elsewhere, said Alon Futterman, development director at the Jewish Agency and the director of Blue and White El Al Ambassadors.
“What we would like to do, through this program, is talk about other sides of Israel that we feel people are not talking about enough, sides that are not related to the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Futterman said.
Young, who’s originally from London, shared stories about acclimating to life in Israel, including an incident in a bathroom on a train, where, unable to read the Hebrew, he pressed the button for the alarm believing it to be the flusher; Ashkenazi, who’s gay, discussed coming out of the closet in Israel and meeting his life partner in a club in Jerusalem — that partner, who is also a flight attendant, sat in the audience at CSUN. Renert, who has three adult daughters, opened up about her decision years ago to switch careers from being a therapist to a flight attendant. And Rael-Brook told the crowd how she met her husband, more than 10 years ago, on an El Al flight — he was a somewhat unruly passenger, she joked.
On Feb. 13, the flight attendants gave a similar talk at UCLA Hillel, and on Feb. 17, they appeared briefly during Shabbat services at Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts.