Masada online Parents glued to Webcast of East Bay teens in Israel

Pioneers of the Internet Age, 151 Jewish teens from the East Bay ascended the granite plateau of Masada's east face shortly before dawn.

As the last of the group trekked up Masada's Snake Path Thursday of last week, 250 of their parents and relatives watched the action — on several wall-sized screens in an Oakland conference room.

The live Internet Webcast — orchestrated like a Pathfinder mission by the event's main sponsors, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and the Koret Foundation — was the first broadcast of any kind from the top of Masada, organizers said.

It also was the first satellite Webcast from Israel to the United States, they reported.

And not last on the list of firsts, the sunrise climb of the legendary rock was a symbolic rite of passage for the mostly 15- to 17-year-olds, modern heirs of the Holy Land spreading in all directions from their vantage point that day.

They laughed, cheered and sang on the big screen. Many bubbled about their trip as Joshua Daniels, 15, of Berkeley, interviewed them as part of the Webcast.

"It's amazing to touch a stone and feel the warmth and imagine all the generations who came before," said Amy Blumsack, 15, of Oakland.

"The soldiers are really cute," quipped another girl.

One boy talked about visiting an archaeological dig in Jerusalem, and another chattered about the ethical dilemmas of the Israeli military. Still others waxed poetic about the scenery, Jewish immersion, kibbutz socialism and the food.

In Oakland, their parents sat mesmerized by the video section of the Web site, which was flanked by a map of Israel and a photo of Masada. The satellite-delayed video depicted snapshots of its subjects frozen in time and followed by a split second of live movement every few seconds. The video camera panned from silhouettes of rocky ruins, black against the sunrise, to close-ups of the teens.

Some parents whispered and pointed. Most never took their eyes off the screens for fear of missing a fleeting glimpse of their child.

Though all the parents had received phone calls from their teens in the hours following the Mahane Yehuda bombing, many appeared relieved to actually see that their kids were safe.

Still, "I'll feel better when they're home," admitted Joyce Goldschmid of Palo Alto, whose twins, Josh and Michelle, appeared briefly on the screen.

The Webcast began atop a high granite plateau in the dusky moments before the sun crept across the Dead Sea and Judean Desert below. The teens marked the sunrise with song and prayer, to which their parents joined in as if the miles between them were not really there. Some parents leaped to their feet when the youths began to sing "Hatikvah," while others, who had not yet spotted their children, screeched at them to sit down.

Before the program started, the Oakland-based organizers struggled to maintain the Internet connection, losing it several times because of pipeline congestion. Some of the parents fretted at the prospect that the program might fail.

"I came from Fremont for this?" exclaimed one mom.

Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the East Bay federation, reassured the anxious crowd: "Alexander Graham Bell, when he picked up the phone, didn't get a good connection either."

In between dialing and redialing the Masada site and barking Hebrew over the phone line, Nahshon charmed and cajoled the families.

"Ignore the man behind the curtain," he joked as the technician fiddled with the computer behind him.

The technician at one point dialed the Jerusalem Post Web site. The online edition, dated one day in the future, boasted the Webcast on its front page alongside news of the atrocity that had happened only the day before.

Nahshon briefed the families about heightened security in the hours following last week's bombing. The teens had been in Jerusalem that day, though nowhere near the explosion that ripped through the outdoor market, killed 13 victims and wounded 170.

Trip leaders adjusted their schedule to avoid crowded areas at vulnerable hours. Some of the scheduled activities, such as visiting Mahane Yehuda, were dropped from the itinerary altogether.

"It is the safest time to be in Israel," Nahshon said. "Borders are closed and security patrols are double."

Jerry Yanowitz, East Bay federation president, recalled reassuring his own parents that he would be safe in Israel during the tense days following the 1967 Six-Day War. He was then 15.

Webcast organizers say pulling off the event — which involved two teen trips plus some college students — was no piece of cake. Underwritten by sundry Jewish organizations, it started with a mobile satellite transmission unit at the foot of the legendary Snake Path.

Because Masada is miles away from the national power grid, a generator was needed to power the unit. Technicians fed 1,200 feet of fiber-optic cable from the unit up the side of the rock to connect with the video camera.

As the youths walked through the arched stone gateway at the top, a powerful computer in Tel Aviv received the satellite transmission, compressed the digital and video information, and fed it into Israel's Internet backbone, from which it traveled through an Internet pipeline to New York. From New York, the transmission was multiplied and rebroadcast from a special live broadcast server to the Oakland conference center.

Organizers said the cost of the Webcast was virtually impossible to estimate since many of the technical services were donated.

Stewart Blumsack of Oakland, one of the parents, said he was impressed with the feat even though the concept is not foreign to him; he works for a data communications hardware manufacturer.

Nevertheless, "the thought that my daughter arrived in Oakland at 57 kilobytes is amazing. Video Webcast for even the average company is not being done."

Blumsack instructed daughter Amy before the event to be sure to get herself in front of the camera. In the minutes of audio connection before the program started, he said he heard her voice call across the conference room:

"`Hi, Daddy.'"

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.