Israeli teens soak up America — and teach about Israel

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Israeli teenagers touring the Bay Area have faced questions ranging from silly to serious from their American counterparts: Do you speak Jewish? Are there sports in Israel? How about television and McDonalds? How do you feel about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin? How is Israel different than the United States?

Tali Schapiro and Ohad Stomati, both 16 and from the small Negev town of Arad, don't mind answering questions. In fact, that's what they're here to do.

The pair are part of a student-exchange program sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League that brings more than 100 Israeli students to the United States and 50 American students to Israel to stay with local families and talk to schools.

Last week, Schapiro and Stomati toured the Bay Area after visiting Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee and gave presentations about the Jewish state at several local high schools including Lowell and Washington.

In an interview, the teens — both sporting multiple earrings and timid smiles — talked about the first three weeks of their monthlong U.S. tour, which will wind up with a visit to New York.

"Every year, Israel is becoming more like America, but we're still different" said Stomati, citing the Jewish state's mandatory army duty, not to mention the relative size of the two countries. "It's just much bigger here," added the budding guitar player and jazz music fan.

As evidence of the similarities between the two nations, Stomati and Schapiro show classes the standard red and white can of Coca-Cola — only with the familiar logo written in Hebrew letters.

"Kids are always amazed," said Stomati.

What amazed Schapiro is that most kids can't locate Israel on a map, which she asks them to do before beginning her talk. "They know it's in the Middle East, but can't find it," joked Schapiro.

The Israeli teens were also shocked to find that in some schools, students had not heard of the Nov. 4 assassination of Rabin.

While many American teens may be out of sync with politics not only in the Middle East but also in the United States, the Israeli students were deeply affected by the tragic events back home, they said.

Schapiro recalls being at a wedding with her "host family" in Milwaukee when someone told her the news about Rabin.

"I went to the lobby to watch the television, to see CNN. I was shocked. I didn't want to believe what happened," said Schapiro, who found it difficult to be away from Israel during that time.

"Everybody [in the Israeli contingent] wished they could be home. Abroad, you can't feel the sadness. [Americans] don't know Rabin; there wasn't sadness in the streets."

Both students telephoned friends in Arad, and say the general feeling among teenagers there is that the desire for peace is more urgent now than ever. Still, the teens know they will be returning to a changed country.

Of course, they have changed, too. Their time in America has given them a new perspective on a place they had long fantasized about visiting. While they say favorite TV shows like "Seinfeld" and "ER" prepared them somewhat for the look and feel of this country, they were still overwhelmed by the Golden Gate Bridge, the Castro District in San Francisco and even the snow in Milwaukee.

Also, said Schapiro, sounding like a teenager anywhere, traveling "makes you more mature, because you have to handle things yourself, without your parents."