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In their off hours, El Al flight crews are now ‘ambassadors’

Six members of an El Al Airlines crew spoke with students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., as part of a new program, Nov. 28, 2011. Shown with the crew is Lehi Rothschild, third from right, the Jewish Agency fellow who organized the event. (Dan Klein)

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (JTA) — A good flight crew requires a certain amount of charm to keep passengers calm during turbulence, emergencies or pretzel shortages.

Five El Al Airlines flight attendants and a pilot put those skills to the test Monday at Rutgers University in New Jersey as they fielded questions on their personal lives and on Israel from an audience of more than 100 for nearly two hours.

It was the opening event for the El Al Ambassadors program, an initiative to put El Al crews to use during their U.S. layover time to create a positive image of Israel in the United States. The idea is to counteract the negative images of Israel in the news with the personal stories and faces of El Al pilots and flight attendants.

“This is a unique opportunity for a Zionist company in the private sector to do something meaningful,” said Alon Futterman, the program’s director and emissary development director at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “You have real people. You have people with families. You have people with the same range of ages talking about real life.”

El Al partnered with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the advocacy group StandWithUs and the Jewish Agency to select 60 El Al crew members from hundreds of volunteers to take part in the pilot program (no pun intended). The event at Rutgers, which boasts one of the largest populations of Jewish undergraduates in the country, was organized by members of the university’s Hillel.

Organizers say the El Al volunteers were chosen largely for their eloquence and English skills, but it did not escape the notice of students that the El Al delegation was unusually diverse: two gay men, a Druze Israeli, a woman who sidelines as an aerobics instructor and a pilot who also is a yoga teacher. The six also happened to be particularly attractive.

Futterman said El Al crews already have received 20 invitations to speak at events across the United States in 2012.

“We weren’t specifically looking for diversity, but it came out that way,” said Daniel Saadon, vice president of El Al’s North and Central America operations. He described the six participants as “the civilian wings of Israel.”

The Monday talk largely kept clear of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Questions ranged from what life is like for gay men in Israel — “We live a normal life. The nightlife is better than New York,” said flight attendant Kai Elias — to balancing a flying career with university studies to dealing with ear popping upon descent.

The crew members also discussed headier topics such as Israel’s changing society, the tent protests that sprung up in Israel over the summer and the changing role of Zionism. Crew member Yuval Vershavsky, a 34-year-old father of two, said Zionism is now about making Israel “a more just, liberal and secular country.”

One of the gay flight attendants, Gilad Greengold, said the only time he had felt the subject of discrimination in Israel was when he and his partner were denied an apartment lease after the landlady consulted with her rabbi.

“It’s not very common,” he said. “It’s just something we’ll have to deal with and change.”

Fares Saeb, a newly married Druze flight attendant, told JTA that the program was an opportunity to share a unique perspective.

“You talk to people from around the world and you get to see how they see Israel, how local press covers Israel,” he said. “They have a narrow perspective, and we have an opportunity to show something personal, private and human. You get a larger perspective from the air.”