Children of the Dream: Non-Jewish U.S. teens find a lot to love in Israel

MAMSHEET, Israel — Reclining beneath a billowing tent after a traditional Bedouin feast, 17-year-old Eugene Martin of Staten Island, N.Y., paused to absorb the unlikelihood of the scene.

Here he was, after all, an African-American preacher's son from New York spending the night among Bedouins in the middle of a sandy Israeli oasis. Earlier in the day, he had ridden a camel through a rocky desert corridor and learned which endemic plants can be tapped for water and soap.

"Being a city boy in the desert is something I never could have imagined," Martin said with a grin. "Even being here…I still can't believe it. I feel as if I'm in a long dream and I have not awakened."

For Martin and 13 other non-Jewish teens from the Bay Area and New York, the dream came in the form of a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.

Participants in a national ADL program called Children of the Dream, the teens traveled to the Jewish state to discover its history and culture, and explore with Israeli counterparts concepts of diversity and tolerance. They returned earlier this month.

This year marked the first time the ADL sent a Bay Area delegation on the program, which was originally created to help heal the rift between African-Americans and Jews by bringing Ethiopian Jewish youth to the United States to share their experiences as black Jews.

The second phase of the program brings racially diverse U.S. teens to Israel, where, among other things, they reunite with their Ethiopian friends. The American teens then commit, upon their return, to work with peers to combat bigotry.

After two weeks of taking in Israeli culture at high schools, historic sites, kibbutzim, beaches and falafel stands, Nabila Lester, a wise-beyond-her-years junior at Berkeley High School, said she'll have "a lot to say to people about what Israel is really like."

"It's extremely diverse in every sense of the word — geographically, people-wise, color-wise, terrain-wise," said Lester, who hopes to forge a career in international relations and become the next Kofi Annan. "It's deep. You can get on a bus and go to McDonald's and 20 minutes later you can stand in the place where Jesus ascended to heaven."

Visiting that spot at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem proved a highlight for many of the teens.

"This stuff is getting me so juiced. This is real," said Raymond Barbosa, an outgoing junior at Oakland's Skyline High School who sings in his church choir.

Leaning her head against Barbosa's shoulder, Ave Angus of Brooklyn added softly: "I feel weak. My feet feel weak and my stomach feels weak. This is the site I'm feeling more than any other site."

Of course, by the end of the trip, each youngster had his or her own personal set of highlights.

Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum, had a particular impact on Julian Jones of Queens, who seemed nearly stunned as he finished walking through the Jerusalem memorial on a cold, rainy Monday morning.

"This can't happen again," he said, shaking his head. "No race in the world deserves this. It's unimaginable."

Shaunte Hill, a dimpled and usually bubbly Hayward High School student, was also subdued by the experience. "The hardest thing is to look at the children's faces," she said after viewing pictures of young victims. "You wish you could have done something."

The students learned more about Jewish history and practice at Kol Neshama, a progressive synagogue in Jerusalem. Before Friday-night Shabbat services there, Rabbi Michael Klein-Katz, a temple member, engaged them in a discussion on Judaism and theology and invited them to the bimah to examine a Torah scroll.

"This is a house of prayer but it is also a house of study," Klein-Katz told the group. "For us, for Jews, study is a form of prayer."

The interchange led students to reflect on what prayer means for them. "It's worship, praise, thanks, asking for things," said Angus, an introspective 16-year-old who throughout the trip jotted down detailed notes, including Hebrew expressions.

Angus enjoyed the congregation's harmonious singing during the Shabbat service but didn't feel comfortable adding her voice to the chorus.

"I felt joining into the singing would be joining into their beliefs," she said.

There was plenty of time for song later in the evening, however. Following a Shabbat dinner of challah, roast chicken, vegetables and rice, the students expressed their sense of spirituality with a round of joyful, raise-the-roof gospel music that had everyone else at the table clapping their hands and shouting "Amen."

In fact, the students' penchant for breaking into spontaneous song, dance and conversation won them fast friends wherever they went. No visit with Israeli youth was complete without copious hugs, photos and address exchanges.

"I want to cry!" exclaimed one Israeli girl as the American group boarded the bus after a lively cultural exchange at a boarding school outside Tel Aviv.

There, and at other meetings at high schools and youth centers, teens from both sides of the globe gathered for socializing and exercises aimed at breaking down stereotypes. Rapping about MTV, basketball and their futures over the universal elixir, Coca- Cola, the students generally discovered they were more alike than different.

"I thought it would be dirt roads and camels," Barbosa said. "It's like how we live. People are the same as us."

Still, at at least one school, the Amit Dror School in Jerusalem, the Americans got a taste of how different life for Israeli kids can be.

During a workshop aimed at diminishing the urge to prejudge people on the basis of religion and ethnicity, the U.S. teens stressed the importance of seeing beyond labels. Martin told the group he has Colombian friends — even though Colombians shot and killed his older sister when she was 19.

But some Israeli students asserted how hard it is not to generalize about Muslims, when Arabs have been responsible for bombs that have killed the students' friends.

"We don't see positive things about them," one Israeli youngster said, as others nodded in agreement. In buses and on streets, they said, they look over their shoulders, feel afraid.

Said Reva Feinsilver, an Amit Dror Judaic studies teacher, "It's very difficult to understand the reality of the children here."

In the end, the American teens, many of whom had never been outside the United States, left Israel with their own realities expanded dramatically. Taken with the country and the new friends they'd made, a number expressed interest in returning to visit and even learning Hebrew.

"It's because of this trip that my mind will be open to new beliefs," said Nicole Greene, a student at a Catholic school in the Bronx.

Molly Lorenz, a sophomore at Skyline High School in Oakland, also found herself altered by two weeks halfway around the globe. "The most important thing I learned is the importance of getting to know people outside your country," she said. "I'm more aware of the rest of the world now."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.