Journals, letters shed light on teens Israel experience

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Just enough time has passed for 151 Bay Area teens to work the sand from Masada out of the soles of their hiking boots and crave falafel again. Just enough time to begin processing the experiences of the Holy Land.

For 28 years, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education has sponsored six-week trips to Israel for confirmation students. The latest group returned a month ago.

This year's travelers visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Negev and Kiryat Shmona, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's partner city. In addition, the teens spent a week meeting with Israeli youth and chose from a variety of weeklong programs in the arts, hiking and nature, kibbutz living or military training.

The following are excerpts of the travelers' thoughts shared with parents and grandparents in letters and journals, and with the BJE in their evaluations:

Daniel Shain, S.F., Congregation Sherith Israel, S.F., evaluation:

"The trip made me realize that praying and fasting aren't the most important elements to Judaism; community is. After six weeks, I feel a strong connection to Jews everywhere on both historical and spiritual levels…Now I don't feel like a more religious Jew but rather a more connected Jew."

Sara Kamins, Novato, Congregation Rodef Sholom, San Rafael, evaluation:

"My attitudes toward Judaism were only changed when I found out about Israelis. I now know that they have a different view of the same religion I practice. To them it is more of a culture, but to me it is a religion…I'm not changed, but I now have a new connection with Israel and I plan to go back."

Gregory Stolowitz, Larkspur, Congregation Sherith Israel, to his grandparents:

"My main worries used to be packing and finding the local McDonald's. But I am finally realizing that this is no ordinary vacation to the Delta…or even a jaunt to Seattle. I am sitting on a kibbutz in the Middle East in a country called Israel. That alone is shocking to me…

"In terms of highlights for the trip so far, there are quite a few. But if I had to pick a few they would be: going up to the top of Masada where the Jews killed themselves rather than be killed by the Romans; floating in the Dead Sea; visiting the square where Rabin was shot and writing a note on a wall to him; seeing sunrises and sunsets in the Negev; riding a camel; eating McDonald's and visiting the Western Wall…

P.S. I miss your cooking, Grandma!"

Sasha Kapralov, San Jose, Congregation Beth Am, San Jose, evaluation:

"Negev: I could never imagine that there can be so much to see and to hear in a desert. Looking at four countries from the peak of a mountain was great…I didn't want to leave Israel, especially Jerusalem on the last day because I realized how much of it belongs to me."

Ben Luey, S.F., Congregation Sherith Israel, evaluation:

"Before the trip I didn't understand the purpose of Judaism…During my trip in Israel I learned that there were reasons, directed toward the participant's own life, to observe some Jewish holidays and practices. This led me to the startling conclusion that there was a point to Judaism. People were actively Jewish, not (only) for their ancestors, but for themselves. What a revelation!

"This change [in my thinking] was caused by the learning I got by being in Israel and talking to different people living there…There wasn't a single event that changed me — an event that I think we must keep. It was the whole experience that changed me…Let those who go talk to different Israelis from all walks of life; the rest will take care of itself."

Lizzie Hammerman, S.F., Congregation Sherith Israel, evaluation:

"I still think that I will make the same choices in my life, but the reason why I make a decision has been affected. (I have learned about the importance of `intent' in a certain action — meaning that a single act can either be a mitzvah or a sin depending on why you did what you did. I now know to judge my intent before I act, making decisions more meaningful and the choices more Holy)…"