Israel trip organizers search for silver lining after thefts

Around 10 Bay Area teenagers were nabbed shoplifting from a Bedouin store in Israel’s south during the recently concluded Let’s Go Israel trip.

The painfully embarrassing situation of affluent American teens stealing from Israel’s Bedouins was not lost on the trip’s leaders, who say they have dealt with the matter in a stern, appropriate — and Jewish — manner.

“The silver lining here is that this occurred within the context of a Jewish program run by Jewish educators that took this behavior very seriously,” said David Waksberg, the executive director of San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education.

Along with the BJE, the Let’s Go Israel trip is organized by the Center for Jewish Living and Learning in Oakland.

This year, 126 Bay Area 15- and 16-year-olds toured the Jewish state, returning to the Bay Area in late July.

On the tail end of the trip, the group traveled to the south of Israel for a “Bedouin experience.” After the teens passed through his store, the proprietor noticed that some of his merchandise was missing, and complained to group leaders. They, in turn, confronted the teens.

“Around 10 percent” of the group “fessed up,” according to Waksberg.

The offenders were made to return the pilfered goods to the shopkeeper in person. They lost all privileges for the few remaining days of the trip.

J. learned of the incident from concerned parents who wondered why the offenders weren’t sent home immediately. Waksberg explained to j. that had the offense been committed earlier in the journey, the dozen or so teens would indeed have been on the next jet out of Tel Aviv.

“This happened right before Tisha B’av, and as part of the Tisha B’av observance the students wrote [apologies] to their fellow trip participants [and] the shop owner,” noted Rabbi James Brandt, the CJLL’s executive director.

Returning the goods and formally apologizing to the shopkeeper were the first steps in a program of tshuvah (repentance). Waksberg said he and Brandt have met collectively or individually with the shoplifters and their families.

The students were told they could not participate in the trip’s reunion meeting without undergoing a further tshuvah program. All of the offenders signed on; several have already committed to participate in community service projects.

Brandt stressed that incidents like the one that marred the Let’s Go Israel trip are not uncommon on teen trips Jewish or otherwise.

“We know from working with teens that they often act out in a variety of ways. And one of the things that was very clear to us is that all of the students knew what they were doing was wrong,” he said.

“One thing that’s very important to try and help our young people understand is why they are not thinking through their actions and how we can help them learn from this occurrence and understand the gravity of it.”

Added Waksberg, “As a parent, I would be horrified if my child participated in something like this. But if it were to occur, this is as good an environment in which it could take place.”

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.