July 25, 2002
Mixing It Up
A unique cross-cultural program brings Israeli teens to Brandeis-Bardin's Camp Alonim.
A few weeks ago, Gil Amir contemplated the status of a trip because of violence in his country of destination.
"I was really upset at first," said Amir, 16. "I had scenarios that the trip would be canceled. But I always wanted to go. I want to show that if there's a terror attack, people should still visit. That I am not afraid."
Amir was not embarking on a mission to Israel. He is among a group of Israeli teens currently visiting Los Angeles, despite the July 4 shooting at LAX's El Al ticket counter, as part of a cultural exchange program created by The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.
Misconceptions like Amir's are being dispelled, which is what the Junior Counselors-In-Training program is all about -- to help American and Israeli teens get a better understanding of each other's reality.
Since July 9, Amir and 11 other Israeli teens have been assimilated into Camp Alonim on the Simi Valley campus of program co-sponsor The Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI).
The Federation chose BBI because of its pluralistic Jewish environment.
"The idea is to make Israel more prominent in the lives of American Jews," said David Gill, Partnership co-chair, working with Jill Holtzman, The Federation's director of International Programs. "We think the best way to achieve this, is through person-to-person and organization-to-organization contact," Gill said.
The participating Israelis are students at Ironi Tet, Ironi Daled and Shevach Mofet, the school many of the teenage victims of last summer's Dolphinarium discotheque bombing had attended.
"It's not good to have one school like a ghetto," said Avi Omri, an employee of the Tel Aviv municipality's education department who accompanied the teens as a project coordinator. "It was much better for them to be mixed up with other children."
The 12 teens, roughly a quarter of the 53 campers, comprise about two Israelis per tent. Halfway through the summer camp program, the teens are working well together, despite some initial bumps.
"There's been some adjustment, especially for the girls," Omri said. "Girls tend to be in cliques. The American kids ignored them at first."
"It took a little time," said North Hollywood resident Meredith Knell, 20, one of the four advisers helping teens prepare for a melave malke (post-Shabbat celebration) at the outdoor ampitheatre on the verdant Simi Valley campus. "Last Shabbat, everything came together," she said.
Teens from both groups said that the program is successfully fostering cross-cultural understanding. A far cry from the program's first days, when the Israelis were struck by the naiveté of some questions posed to them by their American counterparts.
"They thought we didn't have the Internet or technological progress in Israel," said Ironi Daled student Stephanie Moran, 15, whose country, of course, is a global high-tech leader.
Some American students also seemed misinformed about daily Israeli existence.
"There are people who think it's a dangerous place," Moran said. "We don't stop meeting friends or spend all our time at home."
Igal Belfor, 15, agreed: "It's very important for us to visit so that American teens will understand that we still live our lives."
The Israelis are also getting a crash course in American culture. Amir was particularly impressed with Venice Beach, where falafel stands and henna tattoos echoes Israeli youth culture.
Spending Shabbats at Alonim, Amir is touched by the expression of Jewish tradition. "People do it here because they want to, not because they have to," he said.
The Angelenos are also gaining from the social experiment. Calabasas teen Annie Lascoe, 15, said that the Israelis have made this -- her fifth Alonim summer -- special.
"It makes you feel closer to Israel because I've never gone to Israel, but I feel a connection to it," Lascoe said. "They're just like us. They like the same things we do. They're normal teens."
Gill credits both BBI, for making its campus available for the pilot program, and BBI's president Dr. Lee Bycel, who worked hard to fundraise for raising half of the $41,000 in costs.
"Our deep commitment is to fostering relationship between American Jews and Israelis," Bycel said. "The relationship with the Partnership is wonderful, because that's where their commitment is."
Come July 28, when Junior Counselors-In-Training will conclude, some Israelis will journey home, while others, such as Amir, will stay in America.
Despite his initial qualms, Amir says he is glad he came to Los Angeles.
"I feel that I am on a mission," he said. "I have a message to give to kids here, and I didn't want to let this opportunity slip through my hands,"he said.
"We're only 12 here, and we can make such a difference. It feels good."