America-Israel Friendship League's Youth Ambassador Student Exchange (YASE) Program Is a Hit in Oklahoma

One year ago, Taylor Fogle, a high school senior from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, had the opportunity to meet young Israelis her own age and travel with them in the United States and Israel. She is convinced that, when it comes to news about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it is wise to take all media reports "with a grain of salt."

"Much of what you see is blown out of proportion," she said. "Israel is an amazing place, and I want to go back and see more. The people in Israel are the same as the people here. They may have a different culture and lifestyle, but they are basically the same as us."
Her classmate Melissa Neel, who participated in the same program, agreed. Miss Neel said that news reports about Israel and her Arab neighbors are based on "what the media wants you to know." She has said visiting the region afforded her "a better view of the reality of the situation between the nations."

"Now that I have experienced the culture and the people, I can relate more when the news comes on and I hear decisions being made or more difficulties facing the country. I can see the anxiety of the Israelis in that they do not want to give up more of their own country that has taken them so long to obtain. The people who live there appreciate what they have wholeheartedly and are willing to defend it. It is more personal to me because now I have friends who live there, will join the IDF [Israeli Defense Force] in a year or so, and call Israel their home," she said. In Israel, almost all students immediately join the IDF, as opposed to in the United States where many join the work force or go to college.

YASE
The two young women gained this experience by participating in the Youth Ambassador Student Exchange (YASE), a program sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL). Since 1977, YASE has been broadening the horizons of thousands of young American students, virtually all of them non-Jewish, as well as Israelis who also represent a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. A non-sectarian, non-political organization, the AIFL is composed of Americans and Israelis of all faiths, ethnic backgrounds, and political affiliations. Its mission is to promote the mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and Israel.

The AIFL's YASE program is designed to provide approximately 120 high school students each year with the opportunity to participate in an intercultural exchange with students from Israel. One of the program's goals is to help the Israeli and American students become familiar and friendly with different groups of people. For most of the participants, the YASE trip is their first experience with such a diverse group.

OKIE: Oklahoma Israel Exchange
Oklahoma began its affiliation with AIFL in 2005, after the state's Attorney General, Drew Edmonson, participated in AIFL's Attorneys General Mission to Israel. Oklahoma's exchange programs with Israel, however, go back even further. Oklahoma has a Jewish population of just over 5,000 people, or 1/10 of one-percent of the total, and did not originally have a strong connection with the state of Israel. That started to change in 1992, when then-Governor David Walters saw the possibilities for mutually beneficial projects and started the Oklahoma Israel Exchange. Two years later, the Oklahoma legislature established the permanent Oklahoma Israel Exchange Commission to develop joint projects in energy, agriculture, trade, water use, and conservation. It also oversees cultural and educational exchanges. "The US-Israel relationship is based on the twin pillars of shared values and mutual interests," said Oklahoma Israel Exchange executive director Susan Robertson. "Given this commonality of interests and beliefs, it is not surprising that support for Israel is one of the most pronounced and consistent foreign policy values of the American people."


Host Schools and Cities
According to Ms. Robertson, the partnership between AIFL and OKIE is "a match made in heaven." Since 2005, different schools throughout the state have had the opportunity to participate in the YASE program. While only a handful of students each year have the opportunity to experience the entire package, which includes extensive traveling with their Israeli counterparts, virtually the entire school and often the city enjoy the chance to meet the visiting Israeli students and learn more about the Jewish state.

The program begins when the Israeli youth ambassadors and their chaperones arrive in the United States in mid-November and are sent to reside with their carefully screened host families in participating cities. Virtually all host families have at least one child who attends the participating high school. "We have found that the visiting Israeli students just love Oklahoma. The host families open their homes and hearts to these youngsters, offering them everything from NBA basketball games and parties to shopping trips and touring."

Washington and New York
After spending time in Oklahoma, the Israeli students and those Oklahoman students participating in the complete YASE program travel to Washington, DC, and New York, where they engage in workshops and seminars aimed at increased appreciation for diversity, tolerance, and an enhanced awareness of international affairs. The youth ambassadors are encouraged to participate in presentations and discussions about their countries and home cities as it pertains to the programmatic theme. There is also ample time for sightseeing in these important centers of American government, history, and culture. For several years, the students from Oklahoma teamed up with their counterparts from Tucson, Arizona, where an independent chapter of AIFL has existed since 1990. Tucson usually sends eight to ten students each year on the YASE program, and OKIE, which usually sends two to four students, found it convenient to share chaperones with the Arizona group.

Israel
Sometime after their stay in New York, the American youth ambassadors depart for Israel, where they enjoy a week of home hospitality, workshops, seminars, and sightseeing.
When the Oklahoma and Arizona students return home from Israel, OKIE and the Tucson Chapter of AIFL expect them to speak and write about their experiences for school and community groups.

"Every student who has participated has called this a life-changing experience," said Ms. Robertson. She recalled one young woman who participated in the program three years ago. After graduating from high school, she went on to college, but has decided to return to Israel to study. "Not one of our participants has been Jewish, but each of them returns from Israel with a clear appreciation of the country, its aspirations, and its struggles."

"On the Map"
It was certainly true for Miss Neel, who said there is a "huge difference" between "hearing real-life stories from people with whom you have a relationship" and "just reading some article. Now I feel more connected to the people and feel as if I have some sort of loyalty to keep with them, by supporting their country as a whole. This trip will forever change my perspective, and I am so grateful for that," she said.

Similarly, said Ms. Robertson, Oklahoma's participation in the YASE program has put the "state on the map" for the young Israelis. "This is a great opportunity for all students participating in the program. Part of OKIE's mission is educating Israelis and Oklahomans about each other's culture. To be able to travel and experience not only the educational process in each country, but also how the other students live their lives is invaluable."

Melissa Neel, shown visiting (L-R) the Western Wall, Massada and Tel Aviv
Melissa and Taylor with the Great Seal of Oklahoma in Israel