Veterans of 13 Israel teen trips celebrate bar mitzvah reunion

Saturday night, the Concord Hilton rang out with a symphony of squeals, shrieks, laughter and repeated calls of "Oh my God" and "I can't believe you're here." There were hugs, kisses and even a few tears as people greeted each other with outstretched arms.

It was the ultimate reunion, a b'nai mitzvah of sorts — the 13th anniversary of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay Israel trips. Everyone who had ever gone on one of the trips was invited, along with those who participated in the Koret-sponsored East Bay Community Summer Youth Experience in Israel.

They came from as far away as France and as close as Alameda armed with photo albums, cameras, memories and a desire to reconnect with those who shared their Israel experience.

"It was one of the most memorable summers," said Benji Kushins of his 1990 trip. "I'm still in touch with some of the kids."

Kushins' older sister Hilary was there representing the 1987 and 1994 trips, when she was first a tripster and then a counselor. The Kushins' parents, Harold and Shelli, were also floating around. Shelli was on the reunion committee. The only missing family member was Shari, a veteran of the 1994 trip. She was — you guessed it — in Israel.

Daniel Aufhauser from the 1990 trip scheduled his visit home from France, where he now lives, in order to attend.

Another returnee was Jon Seaton, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the National Republican Convention Committee. He was on the 1991 trip. "I came back for the reunion," he said.

Many said the Israel experience was an important episode in their lives.

The Israel trip "made me decide that I wanted to keep a Jewish identity as an adult," said Jessica Holman Berg of Oakland, a veteran of the 1987 trip.

Berg got more than that out of the trip. It's where she met the man who is now her husband, Michael Berg.

"It was a defining moment in my life educationally and socially," said Michael Berg. "Israel was an amazing experience. I want to hook up with people and relive and share some of those memories."

For Lisa Yap, her 1991 trip was just an introduction to Israel.

"I got a taste and wanted to go back to get the rest," said Yap, now a senior at Long Beach State. And she did just that two years ago when she spent six months in an ulpan program then lived and worked on a kibbutz for another three months. "I plan on going back many times."

The exuberance and enthusiasm of the approximately 350 guests was irrepressible, even when the evening's brief formal program began. As they sat in the hotel's ballroom there was scattered clapping, whooping and cheering which crescendoed as each of the seven Israeli trip leaders, who traveled halfway around the world in order to be at the reunion, took the microphone.

"Awesome," said Yossi Koren, the Israel shaliach (emissary) who gave birth to the idea of taking teens to Israel and led the first three trips. "It's unbelievable to see you all here."

Between terrorism in the Middle East and naysayers in the East Bay, only 17 kids signed on for that first trip in 1986. But since then the numbers have grown. Last summer 187 teens went to Israel on either the Koret or federation trip.

Former tripsters may have been thinking about the impact Israel had on them, but shaliach Amnon Gideon, who led the 1989, 1990 and 1991 trips, was thinking about what living in Oakland meant to him.

"I came [to Oakland] as an Israeli and went back as a Jew," said Gideon. "My family became part of the community. The community became part of my family."

Elisha Wolfin talked about what leading two trips meant to him. He is now studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew University in Los Angeles.

"You've given me such a gift. You can't even have a clue," Wolfin said. "I love you guys."

And if there was any doubt about the effect the Israel trip has on Jewish identity, it was laid to rest when Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the federation, asked how many continued their Jewish education after returning from Israel. It was an unscientific sampling, perhaps, but about 80 percent of the audience applauded. When asked how many expected to return to Israel in the next five years, there was a 100 percent response with full vocal effect.

Only when Gideon returned to the stage to pay tribute to Marika Winheld, a counselor who died from a fall at Ein Gedi on the 1989 trip, did the room become entirely silent.

"That group is now the age she was when she died," Gideon said.

He talked about Winheld's work at Berkeley's Hillel, mentioned that her father was with them that night and discussed how she brought Jewishness to all aspects of her life and what a terrible loss her death was to the community.

When they got home, three members of the group founded a B'nai B'rith Youth Organization in Fremont, naming it in Winheld's honor.

After the program, the festivities continued with dancing, eating, lots of talking and more hugging