Zoya Teirstein Discusses Interning in Tel Aviv Affirming Her Environmental Journalism Plans

Zoya Teirstein studied at NYU Tel Aviv in the spring of 2016. She managed two internships while there and shares her experiences with us.

What is your school affiliation and what year are you? What is your major?

I am a senior at Gallatin concentrating in Environmental Reporting.

What inspired you to study in Tel Aviv?

I signed up for the NYU Tel Aviv program just in the nick of time. I was planning on doing a backpacking semester in California, but it fell through at the last minute and I chose to go to Israel instead kind of on a whim. I had been to Israel a few years earlier on a summer program and loved it, so that definitely factored into my decision. I was also interested in journalism and politics–Tel Aviv has a lot of both. The semester in California was supposed to be all about sustainability, which is the second component of my concentration. While I was excited about studying journalism in Tel Aviv, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to immerse myself in environmental issues like I had planned. But I ended up interning for an environmental NGO and wound up learning a lot about what sustainability looks like in the Middle East.

How was your experience? What was most inspiring, surprising, or moving about your time there? What did you find challenging?

Tel Aviv is a lot like New York City in the sense that there’s always something going on. I was surprised how easy it was to feel comfortable there. When you move to a different place you expect to feel isolated, at least in the beginning. But that just wasn’t the case in Tel Aviv. Israelis are some of the most curious and friendly people, and I met interesting people almost every time I left the house. Unlike NYC, its sunny and warm almost every day, which is another incentive to go do things you wouldn’t normally do. I bought a used bike my first week there and used it to go to lectures at Tel Aviv University and find cool beaches, something I definitely wouldn’t be doing in New York in the middle of February.

I understand that you interned with the Haaretz Daily and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel while at NYU Tel Aviv. Can you tell us about how you came to intern at both places? Were these academic internships or non-credit internships?

I interned with Haaretz and SPNI during my semester in Tel Aviv, which took place in Spring 2016. I found out about SPNI through Ilana Goldberg, who is the internship coordinator at NYU Tel Aviv and an amazing resource for people looking to intern abroad. I interviewed during my first couple weeks in Tel Aviv and started working there shortly after. Haaretz is Israel’s leading newspaper and getting an internship there is hard to do. Haaretz doesn’t advertise its internships on its website, and finding a contact at the newspaper who can set you up with an internship is difficult. Also, Haaretz normally finds interns through third party organizations, usually jewish groups that specialize in setting students up with long-term internships in Israel. The only reason I got that internship is because I went to a Haaretz event in NYC the previous semester and spoke to some Haaretz journalists who were willing to help me out.

What did your work at each involve? How did you find the experiences?

Both experiences were pretty amazing. Working at Haaretz was cool because its a major newspaper in a relatively small country that has breaking news events on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The Middle East is extremely volatile, and the newsroom would often have to drop everything to cover a developing crisis (this happened almost every time I went into work). During my first month at Haaretz, there were a string of stabbings in Jerusalem. It would be like 5 p.m. on a Thursday and just as most of our journalists were getting ready to leave for the weekend (Friday is not a work day in Israel) we’d get a report through the wires that there was another stabbing and everything would dissolve into chaos for 30 minutes. I was learning how to write breaking news headlines during this time, which was stressful and often really sad.

My experience at SPNI was definitely less intense, but equally if not more rewarding. My first day there I was put in charge of monitoring and documenting fracking in the Golan Heights for the SPNI English website. A small company called Afek Oil and Co. was trying to drill for commercial oil in some of Israel’s most beautiful terrain, and SPNI was doing everything it could to block it. This story has all the makings of a great thriller (some of the people on the board of this tiny company include Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheney, and Israel’s former housing minister). I won’t go into it here, but you can read my work on this campaign using this link: http://natureisrael.org/What-We-Do/golandrillingcampaign/golandrilling

I got to travel around Israel and interview water experts, environmental lawyers, and community activists. In America, an oil company might spill a few hundred thousand gallons of oil into a river and it can take years to get that company to pay for the damage it caused. Israel is much smaller than the United States, about the size of New Jersey, which means that when a community gets organized and tries to stop a corrupt company from exploiting natural resources, the federal government hears about it relatively quickly. This happened in the Judean lowlands, where a fracking company was stopped in its tracks by a coalition of informed civilians. I’d recommend interning at SPNI to almost anyone, regardless of how interested you are in saving the environment.

Do you feel as though the work you did as an intern has been valuable? Has working for the Haaretz Daily changed your understanding of journalism? And has your work with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel influenced how you think about environmental issues? If so, can you describe how?

Definitely. I had worked in a newsroom before going to Tel Aviv, but Haaretz is on a completely different playing field. Haaretz is considered far left of center, something a lot of Israeli’s don’t like. I learned early on not to tell people where I worked. An old lady yelled at me on the bus one time because she thought Haaretz was “tearing our country apart.” ┬áBut I think the work they do is important. Unlike a lot of other newspapers in Israel, Haaretz covers issues on both sides of the conflict and gives precedence to newsworthy issues that have to do with Palestinian rights. America is just starting to confront the reality of a Trump presidency, but Israelis have been dealing with right-wing extremism for a long time. Benjamin Netanyahu, a proponent of settlement expansion, began his fourth term as Israel’s Prime Minister in 2015. Haaretz has been trying to hold him accountable since his first day in office. I also learned how much work goes into combating environmental degradation during my internship with SPNI. You’d think even the most money-hungry oil company would look at the Golan Heights, see its importance as an agricultural hub, its propensity for seismic activity, and the enormous reservoir right at its center, and stop to do an environmental impact report before blasting chemicals hundreds of meters into the ground. SPNI had to employ slews of experts, lawyers, and community leaders in its effort to combat Afek, and that’s just one campaign! I have a lot of appreciation for the work journalists and environmentalists do on a daily basis.

How do you feel your internship experience has complemented your academic experience at NYU Tel Aviv?

NYU Tel Aviv is amazing, but it’s insular. The campus is in the north, far from the busy center of the city, and there was a tendency, at least in my semester, to hang out on campus. If you chose to study abroad chances are you planned on doing more than drinking beers in the NYU Tel Aviv courtyard with the kids on your program. Getting an internship is a great way to get out of the bubble and see new things.

Has your time studying at NYU Tel Aviv or your experience in either internship informed your thinking about your future plans? If so, how?

It renewed my conviction to pursue environmental reporting, something I hope to pursue (maybe in Israel).