TV and film stars are wowed on their first visit: ‘Now what is defining Israel for me is its life and light,' says actor Steven Weber.
"A lot of us are very intensely overwhelmed by this beautiful country and the tenacious, focused spirit of its people."
So said actor-producer-director Giancarlo Esposito, one of 21 Hollywood personalities who toured Israel in mid-November through The Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to educating and mobilizing artists and entertainers on issues of public importance.
Speaking at a press conference during a week-long itinerary packed with sightseeing and dialogues with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders, fellow artists, NGO heads as well as ordinary citizens and new immigrants, these first-time visitors reported that it had not taken long for their preconceptions to be shattered.
"To the outside world, the ‘two-state issue' makes you think that in the streets of Israel there would be conflict," said KayCee Stroh (High School Musical). "I assumed people would spit on each other and yet on the ground level I'm amazed at how respectful everyone is. I didn't expect that."
Emmy Award-winner Richard Schiff (The West Wing) said he was impressed by a strong sense of service among Israelis. He learned that the country routinely offers expert medical assistance in the wake of natural disasters in places like Haiti and Turkey, and helps its own through organizations such as the NATAL Trauma Center.
"Everywhere we go here, I see there's a mission that's clearly related to the absolute necessity for security and survival that we forget about in the rest of the world. I'm grateful to witness it firsthand and bring those stories back to America," Schiff said.
Actually, the group didn't have to wait that long, as Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris) told ISRAEL21c.
"I've been tweeting the whole time," she said. "I have thousands of followers and I'm kind of doing a diary as we go along. Tens of hundreds are replying back that they can't wait to come to Israel."
She said her devoutly Christian family in New York was excited that she had visited the Western Wall and the historic churches in Jerusalem. The group also had time to unwind at the famous Fink bar in the capital city's Talpiot neighborhood.
Steven Weber (Brothers & Sisters, Wings) said he enjoyed their stop at an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. "We were greeted by a burst of life in the form of gorgeous little kids so exuberant and glowing and accessible, genuine and curious," he said. "In many ways, in the United States, Israel is defined by its pain, but now what is defining Israel for me is its life and light."
Stroh pointed out that communicating with the children transcended the language barrier. "The arts are universal," she told ISRAEL21c. "We couldn't understand each other's language, but we did the Macarena with them and held them on our laps."
For Richard Kind (Spin City, Mad About You), the visit pointed up the difference in attitude toward newcomers: "There are lots of problems for immigrants in America because we keep them at arms' length," he said. "Here in Israel, if immigration doesn't rise year by year, something's wrong. ... I had no idea Israel does everything it can to bring people in."
Teaching children to love and not hate
The visit was organized in conjunction with the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent, non-profit, charitable foundation. It included some time with residents of Sderot, the Gaza border town that has long been subjected to sometimes daily missile attacks.
"I have never before seen people able to live in that kind of strange and difficult situation and call it normal, to move forward and teach their children how to love and not hate, and to remain hopeful there will be peace in this land," said Esposito.
"If the world went awry, I would probably want to be in Israel. Here I could look at the vibrant side of life no matter what's going on outside of me."
Rob Morrow (Numb3rs, Northern Exposure) commented on the "vitality in the people of Israel." Addressing Israeli journalists at the press conference, he said, "I commend all of you for living here, and I get it. I understand why you want to live here."
‘I don't want to leave'
"This has been a remarkable learning experience," said 21-year-old Andrea Bowen (Desperate Housewives, Boston Public). "Before coming to Israel, I talked with friends and peers and there's a lack of knowledge about what it is really like over here. What I've been hearing most of all is people discussing hope. My responsibility is to go back and inform young Americans what it's like here. I'm trying to be a sponge for information. I don't want to leave."
The group was also scheduled to relax on the Tel Aviv beach and go dancing. "I'm so excited about the future of Israel's filmmakers, fashion designers and musicians," said Rachael Leigh Cook (She's All That).
CCH Pounder (Law & Order: SVU, Avatar, The Shield) said some friends in South Africa were "quite upset" that she was going to Israel but she was not deterred. "I'm an actor from a household of stalwart Caribbean people. They didn't really have an explanation that was strong enough," she said.
Harry Hamlin (LA Law, Curb Your Enthusiasm) said he found it remarkable "what a stunning success this project of Israel has been so far. After just a few days, for all of us it's important that this fragile yet extraordinary project be maintained."
Esposito concluded by relating that he'd set out to buy crosses for his four daughters and ended up buying stars of David necklaces instead. "It will be an opening for them to learn more about something they do not know, like I did," he said. "I came to learn one thing and learned another."
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