Live from Israel, East Bay teens uplink with families

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More than 525 pairs of eyes were riveted on a giant video screen in Oakland on Thursday of last week, awaiting a live satellite transmission from Israel.

The one-hour broadcast began at 7:10 p.m. — or 5:10 a.m. last Friday in Israel, shortly before dawn. While 213 teenagers in Israel smiled, yawned and blew kisses at the camera, family members in the Oakland conference room laughed and pointed at the screen. They uttered remarks such as, "There he is," "I see her" and "They look so happy."

Nitzan Aviv, director of the Israel Center at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, greeted the standing-room-only crowd from the other side of the world: "Good evening Oakland, Shalom from Masada."

For the last three years, families of students on the East Bay federation's two summer trips for teens — the Summer Experience in Israel and the Koret Israel Teen Trip — have been able to participate in their children's overseas travels. Ninety-five teens are touring with Koret's four-week program this summer; another 118 are participating in the five-and-a-half week Summer Experience.

"Because climbing Masada for the first time is so powerful, we wanted to create a way for families to share in the experience," Ami Nahshon, the federation's executive vice president, told the group gathered at Samuel Merritt College Health Education Center.

"The logistics are staggering, but the results are worth it,"

As the sun started to rise slowly over Masada the teens sang "Hinei Mah Tov" and "Oseh Shalom" and recited Kaddish "for all the Jewish dreamers who pursued their dreams." Voices on both sides of the broadcast joined together for "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem.

The camera interspersed panoramic views of the Dead Sea with the ceremony taking place on the ancient fortress. The energy current at Masada ebbed and flowed. Between songs, some students waved and mugged enthusiastically while others let handmade signs speak for them — "Shalom Mom," "Hi Everyone, We Love You," "I joined the army!" and "I miss my doggy and brother."

One of the teens caught on camera, Jamie Okh of Fremont, remarked on the early morning wake-up call: "I'm a bit tired, but any day in Israel is worth waking up for."

Deb and Steve Slotsky were thrilled to catch a glimpse of their son, Zeke, a student at Miramonte High School in Orinda. For Deb Slotsky, it brought back memories of her own visits to Israel over the years when she climbed Masada and swam in the Dead Sea.

Joanna Karp, sitting in the audience with her husband and son, cried as soon as she saw her daughter Jessie's face. She acknowledged that Jessie has been a little homesick "so it was really good to see her smiling. I think she'll grow a lot and see that she can get through the tough parts. She looked great and really happy."

Amelia Post, who is 14, came with her parents from Berkeley to scout for her brother, Sasha. She was amazed "to think that he was there in Israel and I was here and I could see him so well." She plans to follow in his footsteps in the next couple of years.

"Definitely I want to take this trip. I'm looking forward to all of it. The kibbutz sounds really great, going to the Wailing Wall. I want to see all of it because I've never been there."

Framed against the approaching new day, Koret trip leader Yossi Cohen-Meidan gathered a group of teens to comment on their time in Israel so far.

Students repeatedly referred to their pride in the Jewish homeland, the joy of building their cultural identity and the thrill of making new friends.

One student remarked that "the questions never faded but some were finally answered."

Zephira Derbivh-Milea of Berkeley reiterated how much the time in Israel has meant to her, but let her family know that she has already made plans for her return.

"Mom and Dad, can you take me to Chevy's when I get home?'

When Cohen-Meidan asked what particular place or experience they would most like to show their parents, students mentioned the Kotel — the Western Wall plaza — the Ein Gedi nature reserve, the Tel Aviv outdoor market and a traditional Shabbat.

Gail Krowech of Berkeley, who came with 5-year-old daughter Rebecca, said that although she did not see older daughter Jessica, it meant a lot to her to see how firmly planted the group was.

"When I heard some of the students say that it doesn't matter what kind of Jewish upbringing you have, you can come here and belong, I was happy. That's what I wanted for my daughter."