A Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reception welcomed 18 students participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by the Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Fourteen students from Tel Aviv's A.D. Gordon School and four students from their paired partner, Northridge's Abraham Heschel Day School, gathered to reflect on their experience as the Israeli students -- all ages 13 and 14 -- wrapped up their 10-day visit to Los Angeles.
"This trip was very important to me, because I actually got to meet the kids I've been writing to for four years and see how they live in Israel," Gordon student Maya Levit said.
While in Los Angeles, the Israeli students experienced American culture, both exotic and mundane, including trips to the mall, Disneyland and Universal Studios. The students also took part in some charitable work: half the group participated in helping the homeless, while the other half volunteered at an AIDS Project Los Angeles food bank.
On the penultimate day of their visit, the Israeli teens conveyed their impressions of American culture and of their life in Israel, which is rarely divorced from the ongoing violence and political turmoil. The Israeli students unanimously feel that their country, in recent years, has become isolated and inoculated from worldwide support.
Merav Schechter even considered her stay a diplomatic mission.
"I wanted to get more support for Israel from Jews in L.A.," she said.
"We need support from Jews here, even if they don't think Ariel Sharon is doing the right thing," Eliran Raz said, to which Gil Asher added, "Israel needs support in the media."
The Israeli students said they were struck by cultural differences with their American counterparts, who seemed more connected to Jewish tradition. Aviv Benn-Sa'ar said he admired the inclusion of religious ritual at their host Conservative day school.
"In Heschel, every Friday they go to beit midrash," Benn-Sa'ar said. "In Gordon, we don't do it."
Heschel's students were equally moved by their Israeli pen pals' visit.
"It has impacted me a lot," said Ali Baron. "Now the situation in Israel is actually more real to me."
"It reinforced for me how every Jew in the world is connected," Daniel Kattan said.
Gisele Feldman learned that Los Angeles was not as religiously polarized as Israel is. "There, it's Orthodox or nothing," Feldman said.
The Federation reception was organized by Galia Avidar, Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership's assistant director of Israel and overseas relations. Also present were Judy Taff, director of Judaic studies and exchange coordinator at Heschel, who oversaw the L.A. visit with the help of Pam Teitelbaum, mother of Heschel participant Adam Teitelbaum. Lois Weinsaft, the Federation's vice president of international planning, heads the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.
The Israeli teens were accompanied to Los Angeles by Gordon staff members Maya Mendel and Tal Atiya and Gordon parents Shoshanna Gatenio and Menachem Reiss. Special programs leaders Sara Brennglass and Hyim Brandes also took part.
The Tel Aviv students said that they would leave with good impressions of Los Angeles' way of life.
"It was a really good experience for me," Tal Erdinast said. "It will change my life forever."