S. Bay teens plan retreat to examine Jewish diversity

On a weekend in early March, 70 Jewish teens will head into the woods.

They won't only be hiking along trails. They'll also be trekking toward respect for religious differences within their own community.

Havurah High School, which is hosting the event, is a religious education program for teens who attend South Bay high schools.

This is their first all-school retreat.

"We're a community-based school, which means we get kids from all walks of Jewish life," said Drora Arussy, Havurah High Hebrew teacher and program director. "The idea is to show the kids…that we need to celebrate our differences."

Havurah High, which is in its second year, serves nearly 170 teenagers from Congregations Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Kol Emet in Palo Alto, Etz Chayim in Palo Alto and Beth David in Saratoga, as well as Bar Yochay Sephardic Minyan in Sunnyvale and Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.

A number of unaffiliated Israeli teens are also participants.

Beth Am hosts the classes, which are sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

"Kids need to understand the meaning of different Jewish factions," Arussy said. "They need to understand what it means to be secular and Jewish. The main theme of the retreat will be respect of diversity. Last year we saw a lack of respect in some kids. I'm hoping it's not a deep problem, but one we can overcome."

Nissa Robbins, a senior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, is a member of Kol Emet, a Conservative congregation. She is also part of the committee helping to plan the retreat.

"Havurah High is good because it brings together Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and non-affiliated kids in a non-threatening atmosphere. In class, we don't usually worry about what sect of Judaism we are from, but sometimes it does comes up. Kids have different beliefs, different opinions," the 17-year-old said.

"Sometimes we are surprised to discover that the stereotypes we hear about a group are not true. We're planning the retreat as a good way for Jewish high-schoolers to get to know each other and bond in a fun way."

Shanna Gilfix, a junior at Palo Alto High School, is a Reform Jew and a member of Etz Chayim, an independent liberal congregation. She said Jewish diversity has been a topic of discussion in recent Havurah High classes.

"We had a big discussion about secular vs. Orthodox beliefs in Israel. We heard a story about a teenage girl who got on a bus in Israel wearing a tube top. A mother was on the bus with her son, and the mother said, 'Look a whore just got on the bus.' Two students in our class were Orthodox and the rest were secular. A couple of the secular students got pretty heated," said Gilfix, who is 17.

"Most of us tried to understand the other side. We agreed that we'd respect the Orthodox in specific parts of town, like in a synagogue. But in public areas, like a beach, we would not wear a long-sleeved shirt. We ended the discussion by agreeing that people should try to respect each other's ways."

Nathan Palanker, a member of Bar Yochay, is a freshman at Homestead High School in Sunnyvale. The 14-year-old Orthodox Jew, who moved to the United States from Israel four years ago, was born in Russia. He is philosophical about the range of diversity in his Havurah High classroom.

"I haven't been around those type of kids much, but it's really fun, talking with them and trying to understand them. I don't see that many differences," he said. "We all kind of understand each other."