Just a dozen pioneers brave the annual teen trip to Israel

When last year's local teen trips to Israel were canceled, Or Shuval lost a chance to see his grandfather. He didn't know it would be his last chance.

"If I had gone I would have seen him. I didn't and he died in December," said Shuval, a 16-year-old senior at Berkeley High School and one of 12 students who left Wednesday for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's teen trip. The venture is the sole Bay Area teen outing to Israel this year and only one of a handful nationwide.

"I'm so happy the Bay Area is going. They worked really hard for us to go."

Trip leader Talia Leibler-Gabay said she knows of only five other U.S. teen trips heading to Israel this summer, and only the Conservative movement's nationwide trip, which has about 80 participants, is bringing much more than a dozen students. Just 10 students will take part in the Reform movement trip, which drew more than 1,400 two years ago.

At its zenith, 331 students from throughout the Bay Area were signed up to head to Israel last year on locally sponsored trips. As many as 70 students opted to go this year. But the roster continued to shrink. By May, just 18 planned to go before six dropped out to make up the final 12 participants who will return from the four-week trip July 24.

Leibler-Gabay said the meager enrollment provides a bittersweet feeling. When asked if she's upset by the total — the lowest in the program's 16-year history — she replied "yes and no."

"Yes, because I'd like many more people to come. And no, because, even with 12, we're still going to Israel," she said.

"So many trips had to shut down because no one was going. So this is great. This group is like pioneers. It's as if we're starting the whole cycle all over again after last year was canceled. In the [program's] first year, we had 15 kids. So we're almost back to square one."

With such a small attendance, Leibler-Gabay confirmed that the trip's shortfall would amount to more than $100,000.

Shuval also expressed some frustration with the group's small size. Because of the large amount of people who signed up a year ago, he expected "at least 30 people" would join the trip this year. On the other hand, a small group has its advantages.

In a large group, such as the one scheduled to go to Israel last year, he said, "You wouldn't really meet all the kids. And the schedule last year was really busy. It was just moving, moving, moving."

As a nod to worsening conditions in Israel — and nervous parents — the trip will avoid major cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, with the majority of the trip taking place in the south of Israel. Students will spend time on kibbutzim, military bases and in the Negev.

"We're not going to any big cities or anything," said 17-year-old Samantha Chelouche, a senior at Alameda High School. "I don't think there's a lot to worry about. We're going to be well-protected."

While some students were a bit frustrated to be missing out on visiting holy sites in Jerusalem, Shuval doesn't mind. Born in Israel and a frequent visitor, he's been to the big cities. But he's never been to the desert.

"I want to see Israel in a whole different way, a way I couldn't see it before, an outsider's point of view," he said. Besides, though this trip is an abridged one, the students' next ones may not be.

"Whoever is going this year has such a strong connection to Israel that they'll probably go back. Last year, there were 120 kids, and for some it'd be their only trip. But this year, the kids are going to go back."

As for danger, Shuval sees potential danger anywhere.

"Last year, a kid at Berkeley High traveled to Thailand, and when he came home he got yellow fever and died," he said. "There's so much danger out there; you can't not go to Israel because of that."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.