Israeli boot camp, buses, kibbutz enliven teen trip

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Their plane landed at San Francisco Airport at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, but for this well-traveled group of tired teenagers, it felt more like 3:45 in the morning — Israel time.

A group of 78 high school students from the East Bay spent six weeks of their summer vacation in Israel, retracing the history of their ancestors and discovering what it is like to be a teenager growing up in a Jewish country.

Organized through the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Israel Center, the Israel program was one of many worldwide. A total of 1,800 teens participated in youth programs to Israel this summer.

The teens arrived wearing white airplane T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "You try — you fly," an admonition delivered frequently by their counselor to keep them in line, according to Charlie Ellis, a senior at the Athenian School in Danville. Fortunately, they behaved.

"It was an awesome trip," says Ellis. "You hear so much about what an awesome and holy place it is, but to actually see it!"

For Todd Ostomel, a 16-year-old student at Campolindo High School in Moraga, Jerusalem was the highlight.

"During the day it was spiritually and emotionally intense," he says, "and at nighttime it had the best discos you've ever been to. The Wailing Wall, King David's Tomb, and The Voodoo Disco all in one day — I don't know any other place like that."

Of course, any trip has its share of sightseeing, but the best part, say the teens, was the opportunity to get away from the tourists.

"We had a 10-day program with Israeli youth on a kibbutz in the Negev," relates Lisa Hurwich, a 15-year-old student from Piedmont High School. "Then we each spent a weekend at one of their homes. Israeli teens are a lot like us, except they grow up a lot faster."

For Stephen Steinberg, a 16-year-old who attends Monte Vista High School in Alamo, the kibbutz experience was also an opportunity to explore a different lifestyle.

"Everything is community-based," he says. "Money is kept as a community. You work for the community and you get back from the community. It's a different concept of life."

Despite these differences, says Steinberg, "The coolest things about meeting Israeli teenagers, was how much we had in common."

Hurwich says that her Israeli counterparts all go to discos, where "they all played American music. I felt right at home."

Ostomel did notice one interesting difference. "Israeli teens were less religious than the kids on the trip," he says. "Being in Israel, they felt they didn't need to go to synagogue all the time to feel Jewish."

Another formative part of growing up in Israel is mandatory service in the army. "We spent a week in boot camp, where the 17-year-olds go before they start their service," says Ellis. "We'd get up at five in the morning and do exercises and then we'd go to class. I didn't really appreciate it until after it was over."

Steinberg says the boot camp "was really stressful." Others found the frequent bus trips stressful.

"The bus drivers are a little weird," says Hurwich with a nervous giggle. "They're nuts and out of control."

Difficult moments aside, says Hurwich, "It was comforting to be in a Jewish country, surrounded by [history]. I think I'll remember most the feeling of being with 77 other Jewish kids my age in a Jewish country. It was a feeling of love and total trust, of being completely accepted. I felt safer there than at home, even though the threat to your life is major."

Steinberg says: "The trip wasn't just about seeing Israel, but about people. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other and how we all changed.

Ostomel adds: "A lot of people asked us when we're going to move to Israel. I don't know that I'm going to move there, but I'm definitely going to go back."