Israeli, S.F. teens find common ground for dialogue

They live worlds apart from each other and have vastly different religious experiences as Jews.

But the Orthodox Israeli teens and the Reform and Conservative Bay Area students who met simply to talk last week found ample common ground for conversation in a number of subjects, ranging from questioning religion and military service to simply what it's like to be 16 years old.

The discussion, which took place last Friday at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, was part of a nine-day visit to San Francisco by 15 students who attend Israel's Amit High Schools, a network of religious schools throughout Israel.

While at Sherith Israel, the students met with a group of local 11th-graders who attend San Francisco High School Havurah, a continuing Jewish education program for high-schoolers.

All the San Francisco students had traveled to Israel and interacted with Israelis while overseas. Yet most still found their meeting with the Orthodox Amit students a new experience because many of the Bay Area teens are not observant, or only moderately so. Much of their previous encounters with Israelis involved individuals much like themselves, said their teacher, Victoria Blint.

That raised natural questions and curiosities on the part of both groups.

In some cases, the questions were basic to 16-year-old lives, like whether drugs are as readily available and widely used in Israel as they are in the United States. The students shared thoughts on whether they define themselves more as Jews or as Americans and Israelis. They even touched on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Often they found that, despite their different upbringing, they shared similar feelings, even when discussing their most profound Jewish experiences.

For Havurah's Ari Baruth, visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall was a peak religious experience. "It was just amazing," Baruth said. "After hearing all these stories and myths, it's amazing to go up and touch it. It's just really spiritual."

Though she calls Israel home, Noga Burstein shared Baruth's sentiments. "The first time I actually felt something was at the Western Wall," she said. "That's a place you can really feel something."

On the other hand, Orthodox Israeli Hadas Shalev said, "My most Jewish experience is everyday life — that I'm in a Jewish school and speak Hebrew. Everything I do makes me a Jew."

Other topics also underscored some of the differences between the two groups.

While most of the American teens are starting to turn their attention toward pending college careers, the Israeli students are starting to prep themselves for life in the army.

The Israeli students said they were not looking forward to military service, but considered it part of their national duty.

"I'm not excited about it but it's only fair that I do my part," said Jonathan Schor. "I will try to have benefits from it, for both me and my country."

Hadas Fenigstein said serving in the military is simply part of Israeli life and gives citizens greater ownership in the country.

Just as curious to Fenigstein, however, was the American tradition of moving thousands of miles away to attend college, only to see family members several times a year on school breaks. "I'm not used to seeing families go away that far from home," she said.

Having spent time in Israel, the American students said they largely understood the Israeli students' desire to serve their country, and some said they would sooner serve in the Israeli army than the American military.

"The Americans usually die not protecting their country," said Havurah's Ben Swig. "While in Israel, they are protecting their lives, their families and their homelands."

The Israeli students also wanted to clear up misconceptions about their country. They uniformly agreed that conflict between religious and secular Jews, and not tensions between Jews and Arabs, is the country's most divisive problem.

"If we can't get along, then we can't make peace with other people," Shalev said.

Yet the American teens couldn't help but wonder how the Orthodox Israelis seemed to take their religious observance and identity so in stride, and asked whether they ever questioned their commitment as Orthodox Jews.

The Amit students said they indeed question their faith regularly, but nonetheless have chosen to be highly observant Jews. Yael Szobel said that while she was born into a family that practiced Orthodox customs, she is following them by choice. "We all have the freedom to not be religious," she said.