Teens on Israel trip lay bricks, awaken inner rabbi

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They wanted less cigarette smoke and schnitzel. More hiking, advance information and time at Yad Vashem.

Three days after 158 high school students returned from the 26th Summer in Israel Youth Program, 16 of them met to discuss their experiences last week — and make recommendations for other teens who may follow.

The randomly chosen group of confirmation-age travelers met for two hours at the Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. Munching on pizza and Oreos, and laughing over shared "you had to be there" jokes, they agreed on five suggestions for next year's trip, although some of them — food and air quality — are difficult to control.

The "debriefing," as program coordinator Mickey Naggar Bourne called it, was a way to evaluate the six-week program and plan follow-up education and social activities with newly hired BJE director of teen programs Yael Paley.

Naggar Bourne was especially interested in hearing about the newest additions to the Israel Experience, a week of interaction with Israeli teens and a week of immersion in arts, hiking, kibbutz life and Gadna (army training).

Victoria Zhagel of San Francisco, a member of Reform Congregation Sherith Israel, recalled her first morning of military exercises at Shaarey Avraham Gadna Base, near Gadera. Shortly after 5 a.m. the blonde Hebrew Academy student was "dragged onto the base."

"I thought, `I look really bad in this uniform,'" she recalled. "And our group was always late and frustrating the commander.

"But I understand the purpose of it [the Israeli Army] better. I felt like I was doing something for Israel even though it wasn't the real army."

Elana Rubenstein, a Tiburon resident and member of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar, chose the kibbutz experience. She was placed at Kibbutz Gezer in North Shimshon. "I'm fascinated by communal living and working for what I earn," she said.

While she was somewhat disappointed to be building a playground rather than picking olives in the field, Rubenstein, sporting a hoop through one eyebrow ("I had it done in Israel") said the experience showed her "there are many ways to be Jewish."

"It's odd," she mused. "I don't believe in God, but I felt connected to the people and land if not the religion of Israel. I feel very Jewish."

Like Rubenstein, Rebecca Lindenberg of Corte Madera and a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom also expressed her Judaism, independent from her family, for the first time.

"I had no idea why I was Jewish except for my parents [being Jewish]. Now I am because I want to be," she said.

Lindenberg formally announced that choice during her final days in Israel. Joining three students at a park in Jerusalem, she finally became a bat mitzvah at age 16.

"When I was 13, I decided against it. It didn't seem important at the time," Lindenberg said. "Our counselor [on the trip] told us all we could have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. By the end of the trip I felt I really needed it to complete my Jewish experience. I wanted to feel more connected."

Lindenberg's ceremony was different from the typical American bat mitzvah. She wore a tallit (prayer shawl), recited the Sh'ma and read a speech she wrote about making the choice to become a bat mitzvah. She didn't read from the Torah.

Not all the participants on the trip made Jewish connections for the first time. Some, like Emily Baer of Mill Valley, a member of Sherith Israel and a student at Hebrew Academy, "reconfirmed" their commitment.

"I've always had a strong Jewish identity; now I just know I have to return to Israel," Baer said, adding she had spoken on the telephone to her Israeli teen-host that morning.

All the teen travelers were excited about getting to know their Israeli peers. They suggested they meet in the Israelis' hometowns in the future as opposed to a neutral location. They also requested a longer visit to Yad Vashem, and perhaps a stop at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. While complaining about the Israeli penchant for cigarette smoking, the teens also lamented a shortage of vegetarian food on their trips.

Mostly, however, they were looking forward to revisiting Israel. Their reasons varied. But the majority said the experience had transformed them in a way that made them want to go back.

"Everything that I've learned since kindergarten was brought back to me," said Adam Eisendrath, a San Francisco resident and a member of Congregation Emanu-El. "I discussed Tanakh (the Bible), Midrash, Talmud, interpretations of the basics of Judaism.

"I worked on the kibbutz. I laid brick. I pulled weeds. I sweat like a chazar [pig]. And the inner rabbi in me was awakened," he added.

"Without being in Israel, I wouldn't have thought about Torah, oral and written, and how it all fits into everyday life."