Web site keeps parents in touch with teens in Israel

Robin Foorman has a deal with her 16-year-old daughter, Rachel. Any time Rachel goes on a trip or to camp, she has to keep her family posted on what she's seeing and where she's going. That way it becomes a family experience.

On Sunday, June 29, Rachel left on the East Bay Summer Youth Experience in Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. But this time, if Rachel fails in her duties as a correspondent, her mother has options. She can go to her computer, get on the Internet, type in http://www.jfed.org, click on 1997 East Bay Summer Youth Experience in Israel and become her daughter's virtual traveling companion.

It's a parents' dream come true.

The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay has included a site for the teen trip to Israel on its Web page. Twice a week, journal entries and photos will be scanned onto the site and posted from the World Zionist Organization's office in Jerusalem. At home, parents, friends or any interested net surfer can access the Web site and get an update of what's happening as well as photos of the travelers.

It's a cyberspace antidote to parental anxiety.

"We'll hear about the whole group experience," said Robin Foorman of Piedmont. "In the past you only got your kid's point of view. Now all the kids will be telling the story."

Trip leader Elisha Wolfin says the Web site enables parents to stay in touch but also recognizes the kids' need for privacy.

"Parents will really be part of our trip. Just being involved lets them sleep better at night," said Wolfin, during a phone call from Prague, where he was awaiting the arrival of the teens.

"On the other hand, it is very important that the kids feel this is their trip and big brother isn't watching them."

The highlight will come toward the end of the trip, when parents will join their children for the climb up Masada — but without suffering the inconvenience of heat, overexertion or getting up at 4 a.m.

The plan is to broadcast the Masada climb simultaneously over the Web site. In the early evening of July 31, families will be able to watch the event on their home computers, if they have the capabilities, or on a big screen at a party hosted by the federation.

The East Bay Summer Youth Experience in Israel is only one of three teen trips to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay this summer. The number of youths participating this year has almost doubled over previous years and the federation, with the help of the Koret Foundation, local synagogues, the Hebrew Free Loan Society and private donors, has raised an unprecedented $144,000 for scholarships.

As a result, financial aid is available for teens who couldn't otherwise afford the summer Israel experience.

Nitzan Aviv, director of the East Bay federation's Israel Center, thinks going to Israel is a crucial part of a Jewish education.

"Israel can give something that nothing here can give. Four thousand years of history," said Aviv.

"Your roots. Your history. Most of the kids say their Jewish identity became much stronger because of the trip."

Wolfin, who is leading the East Bay Summer Youth Experience in Israel trip for the fourth year, agrees.

"It is one of the most important times when Judaism comes alive, it becomes a living organism," said Wolfin who is taking a leave from his rabbinical studies to lead the trip. On a more immediate level, teens come back with a sense of what it's like to lead a full Jewish life and live in a country with a majority of Jews. This leads to a spiritual and emotional connection to Israel.

Among the bonuses of the trip are the bonds that form within the group. "[It is a] community that will be their community for many years to come," Wolfin said.

The largest of the three trips, with 80 participants, is the six-week East Bay Summer Youth Experience in Israel. The trip started in Prague, adding a new Eastern European component to the experience. There the group visited a Jewish ghetto and the Terezin concentration camp. They proceeded to Naples, Italy, and sailed for Haifa aboard the "Exodus 1997," following the ghetto-to-Promised Land flight of many Jews in the years surrounding World War II.

While in Israel, the group will visit historical sites, tour the Golan, swim in the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, live and work with teenage kibbutzniks, spend a few days with the Israeli army and visit a Bedouin camp. They will also have seminars on Mideast political and social issues.

For the second year, a four-week Koret trip will leave at the end of July with 60 teens. Designed as an outreach opportunity, the trip gives teens not otherwise affiliated a chance to explore their heritage and connect with the Jewish community. The itinerary and program is much like that of the East Bay Summer Youth Experience except stays are shorter and the Prague-Italy portion is eliminated.

For the first time, the East Bay federation is sponsoring a 7-1/2 week teaching tour for college students. Students will teach English at a summer camp for 5-1/2 weeks and travel for 10 days. With 10 participants who will be housed with Israeli families, this is the least expensive of the trips.