This was my country

For 63 Bay Area Jewish teens, the summer of ’04 will be remembered as the summer of love.

Love for Israel, that is.

The kids recently returned from a month-long sojourn across the Holy Land. Officially called “Let’s Go: Israel,” the trip was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Bureau of Jewish Education, and the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

Though the East Bay federation had been running a “Summer Youth Experience in Israel” trip for years, this marked the first time the four organizations came together to coordinate a single trip. The ongoing intifada had caused a marked drop-off in trip enrollment in recent years, so joining forces among the four agencies meant youth from all over the Bay Area could now take the trip together.

For many participants, this was their first visit to Israel, but based on a sampling of reactions, it won’t be the last.

“It was the most life-changing incredible month I will ever spend,” says Mira Stern, 16, of San Francisco. “I felt so connected as a Jew to the land and everyone there.”

Departing June 23, the teens spent the first few days in the north of Israel, staying in a hostel in Tiberias. Those were days of fun in the sun, rafting down the Jordan River, riding donkeys and making homemade pita bread.

Security was paramount, as several American and Israeli chaperones (some armed) and a medic accompanied the teens as they traveled across the country in two buses. Every Jewish movement was represented among them, and for the month the kids kept kosher and observed Shabbat.

After Tiberias, the travelers next split up into two groups for a social action encounter. One group went to a refugee absorption center, the other to boot camp with the Israeli Defense Forces.

“We did three days of training at an army base in the south,” recalls Tyler Campbell, 16, of San Francisco. “You get a uniform and they’re yelling at you in Hebrew. We had classes about Israeli history and army history. We shot M-16s. I had never shot a gun, and the kickback hurt.”

For Sarah Strum, 17, of Union City, military life was an unacquired taste, “I thought it was an amazing experience,” she says, “but one I don’t ever want to repeat. I’m an anti-war person.”

Other teens spent those days in Arad working with Ethiopian immigrants. “We were teaching kids Hebrew and English,” says Stern. “It was like summer school. We bonded with the kids, conversing through Hebrew, the second language for all of us.”

The two groups met up again in the Negev, which offered a starkly beautiful desert vista. “I liked the Negev,” says David Goodin, 17, of Antioch. “We took hikes out on the desert. It was the ‘nothing’ part of Israel. I’d never seen anything quite like it.”

After a few days of snorkeling, shopping and dancing in the southern resort town of Eilat, the kids enjoyed back-to-back thrills. First, a night of tea and camels with Bedouin tribesmen out in the desert, followed by a hike in the early-morning darkness to the top of Masada. “We saw the sunrise over Masada,” remembers Stern. “It was one of the most spiritual places I ever saw. It sounds cheesy but when you’re on Masada, you feel history. I really connected with my Judaism.”

Then it was north to Jerusalem for a memorable six-day stay. Though their itinerary was packed, all agree the Kotel and the Old City were the highlights.

“When we went to the Wall,” remembers Campbell, “I thought of all the people I know who brought me to where I am and made it possible for me to be in Israel. It was emotional.”

Adds Goodin: “Going to the Wall was the best part. I wanted my own personal experience so I wedged myself into my own corner and stood there for a good 10 minutes. I had felt detached from the world; then everyone regrouped in the plaza hugging and crying. It was nice to know I was content by myself, then had this whole community I was happy with.”

The kids visited Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl, joined in an archaeological dig in nearby caves, and also toured Jaffa and Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. Before they knew it, the month was up, and all 63 flew home, and not without shedding a few tears.

“I never felt that Israel was my country before,” says Campbell, “but when I went there and talked to Israelis, they made it clear this was my country. I’m definitely going back”

Adds Stern: “It really enhanced my Jewish persona. I felt so connected as a Jew to the land and everyone there. It really is a Jewish Promised Land.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.