Like typical first-time tourists eager to take in the sights, 10 visiting Israeli teenagers kept to a jam-packed itinerary.
Barking seals amused them on a Newport Harbor cruise. So boisterously did they cheer a win by the hockey-playing Ducks, the group saw themselves televised inside the arena.
Recruited to join a Disneyland parade, the teens gamely donned tutus and strutted down Main Street. Equally as thrilling was receiving personalized photos from actor Tom Cruise.
Yet, cultural differences revealed just how atypical were these tourists, energized for unusual reasons to cram full their 10-day visit.
Standing in lines outside Anaheim's Pond made them nervous. So did a playground recess bell, which sounded like a missile warning siren. The behavior of security guards outside retail shops, too, was baffling: they ignored entering customers but scrutinized departing ones.
Explaining local lore was left to area families, who hosted the 10 students and their teacher from Jerusalem's Hebrew University High in March. Besides visiting tourist stops, the teens also spent a portion of the 10 days sharing their life stories at schools, synagogues and a youth retreat as guests of Orange County's Bureau of Jewish Education.
Underwritten by a $10,000 grant from the Samueli Family Foundation, the trips started last year as a substitute for the bureau's teen summer trips to Israel, which parents boycotted, beginning in 2001.
Even if trips to Israel resume, the bureau intends to continue sponsoring Mifgash, Hebrew for meeting, because the Jerusalem-based students are effective at cultivating Israel loyalty among local teens, said Shelly Malman, the bureau's director of administration. (For a local student's perspective, read First Person, p. 18.)
"Israel becomes not just a place they see on TV," Malman explained. "These kids are approachable."
Leaving home as war began in Iraq, the Israeli teens' observations revealed a sober outlook, compared to the coddled ease afforded most local teens. The perceived threat to Israel meant that at home, their parents, siblings and friends were lugging gas masks at all times.
"We're all joking we're missing the war," Maria Ovsyannikov said.
"I'm missing it a second time," chimed in Shai Bar, who in 1991 was in Bangkok with his father, a diplomat.
Cynicism and sarcasm are the preferred weapons to deflect stress, Amitai Sawicki said, adding, "We've developed a certain numbness to being anxious."
"Coming here is like a Friday in Israel," Tomer Doron exclaimed.
"We see our lives as normal, but our view isn't normal," said Bar, citing how some passengers can force wary students to flee buses. "Scouting buses isn't normal. Maybe that's a youth's way to fight back."
The students from the private school for gifted children were a mixed lot. One boy was Boston-born; one girl Ukranian-born. Their interests ranged from dance to scouts, guitar to karate, community service to Labor Party youth activism.
Yet, only a few could permit themselves the luxury of dreaming about their future. A red-haired girl wants to be a neurobiologist. A dark-haired one hopes to be a surgeon. "Taking over the world" is the ambition of the group's comic.
In the next seven months, each in the group will have received assignments to varying units, as part of Israel's mandatory military service requirement.
"Most, if we had a chance, would like to go to college," Bar said.
"We all think about the army all the time," Tal Rimon said. "We all hope to get somewhere where we feel like we're doing something for our country and living up to our potential."
"Consciously, we're trying to do as much as we can now," Ovsyannikov said.
"We're competing to get into the most elite unit," Sawicki said. "We don't think about anything. It's a way of accepting it."
"Not many countries give such responsibility to an 18-year-old," Bar said. "We don't want to disappoint anyone."