A group of Jewish teenagers from Pittsburgh recently returned from a month in Israel, including a week spent in Pittsburgh’s sister communities Karmiel and Misgav, as part of the Agency for Jewish Learning’s Teen Leadership Trip. Partnership 2000 subsidized the program.
As part of the experience, Israeli teenagers returned to America with their new Pittsburgh friends for a two-week trip of their own.
The goal of the exchange, according to Zipora Gur, AJL director of advanced education, is that “American kids learn about life in Israel and Israeli kids learn about life in the Diaspora.”
Upon their return the American students will complete a service project in Pittsburgh to supplement projects in Israel.
While in Israel, the Americans learned a different, decidedly more Israeli, meaning of the word “service” after experiencing a few days in a Gadna, or Israeli boot camp.
It was the hardest thing many of the teenagers ever did, Gur said. “Now they better understand what our soldiers are going through in Iraq and in the news when they talk about the Israeli army.”
But the only fighting they saw were some verbal barrages with Israelis, according to Jill Briet, 17, one of the local students on the trip.
“Some Israelis we met think college is nothing but a big party, and it’s not fair that American Jews should get to go party while they have to fight,” Briet said. “A big argument broke out between those who think Americans should have to serve in the IDF and those who think the contributions we do make, like money and support, are valuable.”
For her, the best part of the trip was staying with the host families.
“This was my first time in Israel, and you hear that Jewish families are always welcoming, but they were just amazing, Briet said. “It’s really awesome to be in their houses; they stuff food down your throat and take you places. I think it’s really important to meet actual Israelis. We went to the Wall and hiked, but this was special.”
Many Israeli teenagers felt the same way. Asked about Pittsburgh and their hosts, the whole room of Israeli teenagers gushed their praises.
They also were impressed with something many Pittsburghers take for granted: the landscape.
“There is so much green here,” marveled Moran Kuba, of Karmiel, to strong agreement from her peers, “and you have so much water!”
“Please give us some!” a young man in the back chimed in.
The Israelis showed their enthusiasm for Pittsburgh by their eagerness to talk about it. What began as an interview with three Israeli students morphed into a large group discussion, as more and more people came into the room wanting to be interviewed.
The Israelis arrived here on July 31 and will stay until Aug. 9, when they will visit New York City until Aug. 12. They have scheduled a side trip to Washington, D.C.
The students also meet for discussions on Jewish identity. In one such talk the consensus is that Jewishness is for Israelis what trees and water are for Pittsburghers.
Livne Peer-Raviv, 16, was born in Israel and lives there, but she also spent 11 years in Tulsa, Okla. “While Israelis do take Judaism for granted, Americans treat it like a burden, and this program reminds both sides that it is not something to be taken for granted nor is it a burden.”
He insists however that in spite of anti-Semitism, the Jewish communities in Tulsa and Pittsburgh “are safe places I can go in case, God-forbid, something happens in Israel, and the same is true for American Jews and Israel.”
Amid reports of growing Israeli mistrust of America and the foreign policy of its new administration, both groups of teenagers insisted the relationship is still very strong.
“People were a little more peaceful and a more easy-going last year, but I think that’s because of the war,” said Loni Ben-Zvi, an American who went on the trip last year and chaperoned this years referring to the recent fighting in Gaza.
“Bush was ‘nicer’ than Obama,” Alon Yefet said, but “Obama took charge and wants to change something, Bush didn”t. But I love everybody.”
Most Israelis said they have nothing against President Obama, but they liked former President Bush better, though a significant few expressed a preference for Obama’s approach.
(Derek Kwait can be reached at email@example.com.)