Tawonga trip will let teens lend a hand in Israel

Summer camp is taking on a new twist at Camp Tawonga this year. In July, 40 high school juniors and seniors will be crossing international borders and taking a trip of discovery to the Holy Land.

The Teen Service Learning Trip to Israel is an idea that started four years ago as a service-learning initiative, an extension of the camp’s service-learning curriculum. The initiative reached new heights in 2003 and 2004 when the camp took some participants to El Salvador. This international experience sparked a Tawongan interest in grassroots developmental learning about Israel.

A few years later, that idea became a plan. “Israel is a place [the participants] can learn from and help make a difference in,” says Camp Tawonga’s Executive Director Deborah Newbrun.

While in El Salvador, the teens built latrines and planted fields. In Israel, they will take on a range of community-related service projects: assisting foreign workers in Tel Aviv, working on a kibbutz and studying with new immigrants.

Director of Teen Service Learning Nina Kaufman says the program’s biggest challenge — of educating communities about the meaning of service learning — is also the biggest reward.

As a new group of teens sets out to change the world this July, helping their Arab and Israeli counterparts with a coexistence project is on the agenda. The students will also learn about Israel and its importance to the Jewish people. Topics such as social justice, tolerance, Israeli-Palestinian issues, poverty, immigrant communities and sustainable development will be covered.

And when the participants return from Israel, they will have an opportunity to speak in the Bay Area about what the trip taught them about Israeli issues and the importance of service learning — and how they will incorporate community service into their lives.

Though “Israel is a sensitive topic for parents to feel comfortable to send their kids,” says Kaufman, “the JCC Maccabi Israel will collaborate closely with Israeli police and defense forces regarding security developments.” JCC Maccabi Israel, which is run by the JCC Association, is helping Tawonga coordinate the trip from Israel.

Fifteen-year-old Anna Akullian, who has attended Tawonga for seven years, says the last time she was in Israel was when she was 9. “I didn’t know how important Israel was,” she says. “To so many religions it’s a holy place, not to mention the historical sites there.”

Akullian recently learned that she’ll be going on the Tawonga trip. She says she looks forward to seeing elements of Israel from a different perspective.

She expects Tawonga’s trip to Israel will be a journey of self-discovery and learning about other cultures. Some of the issues the teens will face are compounding and complex, and Akullian says she is ready to take on that challenge.

“I think it’ll be hard to overcome all this hatred [between the Palestinians and Israelis]. But sometime in the future, people will work it out and everything will be OK.

“Take today’s generation, for example,” she adds. “The fact is that kids are becoming friends despite their parents’ religious differences.”

And while most of Tawonga’s young participants are Jewish, they are not necessarily religious. Both Akullian and Newbrun point out that Tawonga is more of a social setting in the community. Their recipe for success is quite simple: a passion for the outdoors and a spoonful of Jewish spirituality.

To apply for the Teen Service Learning Trip, go to www.tawonga.org or call (415) 543-2267.