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German-Israeli youth exchange in difficult times

Ella and Laureen got to know each other on a German-Israeli youth exchange programme. They can no longer visit each other because of the war – but they stay in touch. 

Author_Vanessa_SchmidtVanessa Schmidt, 08.05.2024
Ella (left) and Laureen met through a youth exchange programme.
Ella (left) and Laureen met through a youth exchange programme. © privat/Anke Spieker

“We both felt as if we’d known each other for years. It felt just like family,”, says Laureen Spieker, recalling Ella Shafran’s visit in the summer holidays of 2023. The two youngsters spent two weeks together in Germany under a German-Israeli youth exchange programme. “It was very special for me to experience being part of a different family – and in a completely different culture, too,” says Ella. 

The programme included history, culture and a visit to an amusement park, but the two mainly benefited by picking things up from each other in the course of their day-to-day life in Germany. Ella showed Laureen how to prepare the traditional Israeli egg dish shakshuka, for example. “I used to find dishes with eggs rather boring, but now I often take the time to cook Ella’s dish,” says Laureen. And Ella now has porridge from time to time as well – a dish her German host family would eat. “It’s kind of funny that we had such an impact on each other through food,” says the young Israeli girl. 

“7 October was a turning point”

Months later, they both still have fond memories of the time they spent together. Talking about the German-Israeli youth exchange programme, Laureen says: “I would do it again right away.” But times have changed since the summer of 2023. The terrorist attack by the radical Islamist Hamas on 7 October 2023 and Israel’s counter-offensive in the Gaza Strip were still a long way off back then. For this reason, it hasn’t yet been possible to organise Laureen’s planned return visit to Israel. 

“7 October was a turning point – that was something we all had to take in at first,” says ConAct director Christine Mähler. The Coordination Center for German-Israeli Youth Exchange is an institution run by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth that supports some 300 extracurricular education and exchange projects every year.

Founding of the “We are connected” initiative

Since the outbreak of war, conventional forms of youth exchange between Israel and Germany have been suspended. The partnership is still very much alive, however. The initiative “WE ARE CONNECTED. German-Israeli Youth Exchange in Support for Israel” was founded in December 2023, for example. “We want to emphasise the ties between the two countries and show that we’re still in close contact with each other,” says Mähler. Online meetings are offered as an alternative to in-person exchange, for instance. 

A network meeting on German-Israeli youth exchange
A network meeting on German-Israeli youth exchange © Ruthe Zuntz

The Coordination Center is very much involved with the issue of exchange and the impact of the Middle East conflict. A network meeting was held with experts in the area of youth and educational work from Germany and Israel, for example. “This event provided a forum for discussing the educational challenges that arise for bilateral exchange work from the consequences of 7 October in Israel – while at the same time sending out a powerful signal of solidarity between the two countries,” says ConAct. 

Laureen and Ella write to each other several times a week, also exchanging views about the conflict. The two of them are certain that Laureen will come to Israel at some point. “We’re working on a solution to catch up on my visit to Israel as soon as possible,” says the young German girl. “Otherwise we’ll organise it on a private basis.”