Pursuing peace



September 16, 2016

Editor’s note: Former Israeli President Shimon Peres passed away on Sept. 28 at the age of 93. Hillel International joins the world in mourning a man who dreamed and worked tirelessly for peace. May his memory be a blessing.

As we remember Peres’ impact on Israel and the world, we share this story of how he touched the lives of Hillel students.

For many students, summer is the perfect time to gain professional skills and experience from an internship. This past summer, George Washington University senior Sydney Levin-Epstein and University of California, Irvine senior Lauren Kerner, both students active in their campus Hillels, took their professional pursuits to Israel to work with the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Young Leaders.

After visiting the Peres Center for Peace during AIPAC’s Advanced Advocacy Mission to Israel in January, Levin-Epstein, 21, felt a sense of pride in her personal beliefs on Zionism, especially after learning about former Israeli Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres in her childhood. She decided to seek an internship at the center, which promotes peace between Israel and surrounding countries, in Tel Aviv that past summer.

“Had I not been active in the Hillel community at George Washington University, I would not have found myself in a position to pursue this opportunity,” Levin-Epstein said. “Hillel helped me establish myself as a young, Jewish woman confident to pursue this opportunity.” Levin-Epstein served as a member of the Jewish Student Association at GW Hillel and two years as co-president of GW for Israel

Once in Israel, Levin-Epstein interned at the center’s public relations department. “No two days were the same,” she said. “There were days when we went to hospitals to interview and meet families from Gaza that were receiving medical treatment from Israelis. I saw an Orthodox Jewish family next to an Islamic Palestinian family in a hospital, mourning and healing together.” Other days, Levin-Epstein traveled with Peres to events and researched in the office. “The only reoccurring thing was having an assignment and doing it well,” she said.

Being the only intern in the office, Levin-Epstein brought a young, fresh perspective to the workplace —she introduced the staff to PokémonGo, and created President Peres’ Snapchat account. Levin-Epstein says President Peres used Snapchat to “encourage young people to turn to entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation to create positive social change and lasting peace.” He thinks the dog filter is funny, she said.

One memory sticks out for Levin-Epstein: When she expressed skepticism in the work that peacemakers in Israel do, the public relations coordinator responded, “Would you rather be part of the solution or not do anything at all?” This prompted a revelation for her. “It put to words what I really want to do with my life, because not doing anything means contributing to a problem. If something is important to you, pursue it.” 

Lauren Kerner spent her summer interning at YaLa Young Leaders, which was founded by the Peres Center. She found her internship through Onward Israel, a program that connects Jewish 18-27-year-olds with internships in Israel, providing housing, living and transportation stipends.

YaLa Young Leaders is a movement in which Middle Eastern youth guide the next generation to a more peaceful future through Facebook engagement. Its goal is to connect people throughout the region, while “painting a realistic picture” of the Middle East.

Every day, she came into work, grabbed coffee and a croissant, and met with YaLa Founder (and co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace) Ambassador Uri Savir. From 10 a.m.-5 p.m. She worked with the staff on various projects, including: blog editing, social media and working on alumni resources for YaLa Academy graduates. “Some days were very demanding and others were more relaxed,” Kerner said. 

Kerner said her projects themselves were “fairly basic,” but working abroad, acclimating to Israel and walking during the summer heat made some days more difficult.  “It made me think of the original Kibbutznik who worked so hard to build this state. Today I feel like I’m part of this group of people who are trying to build a better Israel, just like the Kibbutznik and Ben Gurion days. The goal of organizations like this is to make a better Israel. Being part of an Israeli and Palestinian peace organization was the most Zionist thing I’ve ever done.”

Both women said their time in Israel were experiences she never wants to forget. Before her trip, Levin-Epstein’s mentors told her to capture everything in writing so she’d have the memories forever. One thing she jotted down in her journal was a quote from President Peres: “What is the greatest mistake of my life? My dreams were too small.” Levin-Epstein reflected: “If a Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister states that his dreams were too small, then my mind is the only thing stopping me from accomplishing anything I set out to do.”