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California Kibbutz

by Michael Aushenker

June 20, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Operation Unity kids constructing a zipline platform.

Operation Unity kids constructing a zipline platform.

In a woodsy commune environment nestled within a dry, hilly valley, as the Beastie Boys blares from a boombox, a group of teenagers joke and laugh while they construct a hillside platform out of wood planks. For weeks now, these teens have spent their days doing such chores to earn their keep on this remote Jewish outpost.

This is not Kibbutz Ein-Hashofet or Kibbutz Nahsholim in Israel. It's Malibu, Calif., at Camp JCA Shalom, and these "kibbutzniks" are not even Jewish. They are African American, Latino and Armenian students handpicked from inner-city schools, such as Morningside and Roosevelt, to take part in a unique two-week program called Operation Unity, which teaches kids tolerance by engaging them in a kibbutz-modeled experience.

On a hot June Thursday, the teens were so into the construction process, that Edlin Vasquez and her Hollywood High schoolmate Leslie Tovar -- part of another subgroup transforming a garden -- wound up spending their downtime assisting.

"These kids initially thought they'd only be with friends from their own school," says Cookie Lommel, architect of Operation Unity, "but they've grown together and learned about each other's cultures."

Shalom Institute Director Bill Kaplan said he is delighted to host Operation Unity on his JCA Camp campus during the quiet time before the official summer camp season kick-off on July 2. "We've been very impressed," he says.

Operation Unity officially began in 1994, but its genesis can be traced back to 1992 when author-journalist Lommel saw a documentary on Operation Solomon. "It inspired me as a journalist," Lommel says. "The spirit of understanding the Ethiopian Jews going back to their homeland."

She had traveled to Israel for the first time to interview Ethiopian Jews for an article and fell in love with the kibbutz lifestyle. "A kibbutz is one of the most unique places in the world where they have multiculturalism," Lommel says. Upon her return to Los Angeles, Lommel formed Operation Unity, which has attracted the support of various sponsors, including Jewish Community Foundation, City of Los Angeles Human Relations Committee and the Roth Foundation.

This year, 15 students were culled from Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools to partake in kibbutz life. In addition to the weeks spent in Malibu, Operation Unity features weekend cultural excursions all over Los Angeles, including visits to Valley Beth Shalom, the African American Firefighter Museum, Breed Street Synagogue, the Japanese American Museum, and an East Los Angeles mural tour. Evenings offer sessions in human-relations designed to teach students about each other's background. Visitors have included Leah Steinberg, who relates to kids via hip-hop; Meirav Eilon-Shahar, consul for communications and public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; and a music therapist who conducts drum circles.

Although this session ended on June 15, the program will continue with a follow-up component that will send the participants to share their experience with schools, churches and synagogues.

The outdoorsy Camp JCA setting is an incredible bonus for these teens, many of whom have never left their inner city neighborhoods. Suddenly, they find themselves in a safe, quiet environment, where the only predators are the indigenous hawks and rattlesnakes.

"I love animals -- the raccoons, the squirrels out here -- but I'm scared of them," says 15-year-old South Central resident Porchia Colley with a laugh. "You can breathe here, and not breathe all that carbon monoxide. The people here are nice. We all got along from the very first day."

Vasquez, 16, says she has gained a lot from the camp. "We've learned how to get along and to tolerate other cultures. Just because we believe differently doesn't mean we should be treated differently."

Operation Unity counselor Rashad West walks around the garden, pointing out his subgroup's progress over the last week: they've removed weeds and large rocks, created stairs, laid down polyester weed blocker, installed a drip irrigation system for the garden -- which is shaped like the map of Israel -- and planted onions, strawberries, bananas, tomatoes, thistle, a fig tree, a grapevine and even olive trees.

"Everybody was really impressed that they got it done so fast, " says West, who celebrated his 24th birthday on June 12 during Operation Unity's Camp JCA run. West himself was a teen when he participated in 1994's session, which sent a small group of teens to live on a Northern Israel kibbutz. An African American of Christian faith, West says he was profoundly moved by the experience.

"It gave me a global perspective rather than just a local perspective," says West, now a teacher at Berendo Middle School.

He says that back then he didn't want to write in his daily journal, but today he is glad that Lommel made him, because the entries are the only chronicles he has of the times he shared in Israel with fellow Operation Unity teen Giovanni Valencia, who was randomly gunned down at a bus stop by gang members in August 2001 while home from the military. Valencia was 23.

West, who may spend the summer as a JCA Shalom counselor after Operation Unity ends, says he is really bonding with the teens and plans to treat them to barbecues and Magic Mountain by summer's end. He wants to encourage the teens to continue their transcultural exploration.

"They are learning that they have similar intertwining stories," West says. "That's what this is all about, and I think the kids are really absorbing that. They may look different, but their history is not so different than your own."

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