Jewish teens recreate history aboard Exodus vessel

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ATLIT, Israel — Beth Kellman of Berkeley watched hundreds of Jewish teenagers crying, hugging and cheering as their ship — the "Exodus" — approached Israel's shore.

"If their parents could have seen them…I don't know the words that would describe it," said Kellman, director of the Federation of the Greater East Bay's Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

Kellman was aboard a rented Russian ship with 600 American Jewish teenagers, including dozens from the East Bay, who recently retraced the route taken by waves of illegal immigrants, or ma'apilim, on their way to Palestine in the 1930s and '40s.

It was all part of an elaborate reenactment of a dramatic chapter in Zionist history staged for 1,800 teens traveling to Israel for summer programs.

The teens relived the voyages, called Aliyah Bet, to pre-state British Mandate Palestine from war-torn Italy and the Holocaust made famous by the original Exodus vessel.

But unlike the 4,500 refugees aboard the Exodus '47, which the British turned back, the teens made it. Reaching Israel, their ship was rescued by actors posing as elite military forces fighting the British for a Jewish state.

East Bay Federation executive vice president Ami Nahshon recalled the words of Stephen Steinberg, 16, of Alamo, who during the trip one night gazed into Israel's sky.

"He said he was looking at the same stars the survivors of the Holocaust must have been looking at when they emigrated to Palestine," Nahshon said.

"That, to me, was a powerful expression of continuity and identity."

The ship's voyage capped off a four-day exodus, complete with gunboat escorts and a vintage British scout plane.

Two of three ships left from Brindisi, in the south of Italy. A third ship sailed from Athens. A fourth ship is scheduled to set sail with French Jewish teens in August.

Teens on the first boat from Italy said they now understood how the Jews illegally immigrating to Palestine must have felt.

"We're thinking what they were thinking, like brothers and sisters, but different," said Adam Magnus, 16, of New Orleans, as the ship approached the shores of Israel.

More than 15 summer programs helped carry teens from across the United States on three ships during the weeklong Exodus '95 program, sponsored by the Youth and Hechalutz Department of the World Zionist Organization.

The adventure began with a two-day tour of Rome, where the teens learned briefly about the history of Italian Jewry. Kellman, an expert on Italy, spent three days with the group there.

The group visited the Arch of Titus, erected to honor the general who brought the spoils of the First Temple from Jerusalem to the Roman Empire. The teens then re-enacted the triumphant march through the arch by Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors after World War II.

The march was followed by a visit to the Jewish ghetto in Rome to show where some of the refugees originally came from.

Once on the boat, the teens met American volunteers who served on the original Exodus crew and a Polish refugee who came to Israel on another ship in 1947.

"It tears me apart to see this," said Frank Lavine, who worked in the engine room of the original Exodus.

"The ship is not the same and these are kids, but seeing this and the shore of Israel is an indescribable feeling," he said.

As a British scout plane spotted the ship about 20 miles off the coast of Haifa, the teens posted signs across the deck for the British blockade to see.

"Down with the Brits."

"Live free or die."

"The Promised Land is ours."

"We don't brake for the British. 'Nuff Said."

As all 600 teens on the deck of the ship chanted "Eretz Yisrael" and sang "Hatikvah" and "Oseh Shalom," members of the Conservative movement's United Synagogue Youth danced with a Torah they brought on board.

"The Exodus did not survive without a fight," the veteran Lavine rallied the teens. "Do not submit to the British."

For the teens, recreating the refugees' experience was only part of what they gained during their four-day voyage.

"I feel a stronger connection to my religion now that I get to see where everyone is from," said Michelle Suarel, 17, of St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Being surrounded by Jewish people is a very comforting atmosphere. There was already an immediate connection," said Todd Ostomec, 16, of Moraga, Ga.

Janice Brodsky, 15, of Berkeley, Calif., added, "It's really great when you say `Hi, I'm from San Francisco' and someone else is from Memphis, Tenn. Who would have thought there are Jews in Memphis, Tenn.?" she said.

This year 78 local teens joined the Exodus, the most East Bay teens sent on summer programs in 10 years. Nahshon said the six-week trip, via the East Bay's Israel Center, costs $4,200 per person; about one-third receive scholarships, others find help from Hebrew Free Loan.

Last year the teens retraced the Exodus on a Greek cruise ship, and were served by tuxedoed waiters. But Kellman said this year's four-day trip was rougher. Teens following in the footsteps of the original immigrants produced a newspaper and plays, and did not live luxuriously.

"It was the antithesis of the Love Boat," she said.

As the ship approached the shores of Palestine, mock British gunboats escorted the Exodus to port.

"It's like a dream that doesn't seem real," said Justin Axelroth of Little Rock, Ark., adding, "I've waited a long time to see the State of Israel."

"This is a very emotional experience. We're seeing Israel as they would have seen it," added Samantha Evian, 17, of Philadelphia.

After "escaping" from British prison camps and hiking the beach in Atlit in the footsteps of original ma'apilim, the teens sang "Shehecheyanu," the traditional prayer of thanks, as an emblazoned "Exodus '95" sign lit the dark sky around the memorial site at Atlit.

"You don't really know how emotional it is until you see Israel because it's our land," said Brad Saks, 17, of Cranbury, N.J.