For the eight Israeli and nine American teens in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, Project Hevrei Teva, the scene was right out of the movie "Deliverance," only this scene, a campground in Sequoia National Park, was real life, and a real bear was standing before them.
None of the Israelis had ever seen one before. Project leader Josh Lake, head of the Shalom Nature Institute, which helped develop the month-long program, calmly directed the teens to stand together and start waving their arms high in the air. Suddenly, the absent-minded bear stopped slobbering over the teens' backpacks and looked around; something had spooked him. The next thing they knew, the bear was hightailing it for the woods.
"It must have been our stench," laughed Lake, describing the scene. By that point, the teens had gone for nine days without a bath, and the smell likely would have scared just about anybody.
Bears weren't the only big animals the Israelis would see for the first time on this trip, and going without a bath for so long wasn't the only sacrifice the Americans would make either. But when the idea of Project Hevrei Teva was being cooked up a year and a half ago in Israel by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, that wasn't even on the agenda.
The original idea was to bring American and Israeli teens together to study the connections between nature and Judaism, pairing Israeli scouts (Tsofim) with Camp JCA Shalom campers.
Given the situation in Israel, the group settled on a month-long program in the States, with two weeks devoted to the road -- camping, kayaking, white water rafting, hiking -- and two weeks at the Shalom Nature Institute in Malibu. At the Institute, they constructed a garden with the flora of Israel (which happens to be the same as in Southern California).
What nobody could have foreseen at the time was the byproduct of this pairing: the connection, not between nature and Judaism, but between the two groups of teens, of understanding and empathy.
"It's been a fantastic exercise in partnership and cooperation," Lake said, as he watched the teens build the garden together, high on a bluff overlooking Camp JCA Shalom.
"When the Israelis came the first day, they asked, 'Where's the security? There's no security here.' Our teens were like, 'What are you talking about?' The Israelis said, 'Every time a leaf snaps we think it could be a terrorist.' "[One of the things] the Americans found out was how nervous the Israelis are about security," Lake said, "And the Israelis found out when you go to the mall, you can walk right in without having your backpacks checked. It's been a tremendous education."
Both groups of teens confessed that the connection between the two was hard at first, but has gotten easier, especially after two weeks of camping. Now as they build the garden, even the language barriers are breaking away: the Israelis are learning American slang, and the Americans are speaking in Hebrew sentences. When it comes to building the garden in the shape of Israel, with Israeli vegetation and good old American organic mulch, the teens are also working on a happy medium. "The Israelis are very opinionated; you have to compromise a lot!" said one Los Angeles teen.
"But it makes sense," said another. "They want to have a say because it's where they live. They will ask you 'Why?' and question you about your choices [about the garden]. It forces you to make sure you know why you're doing something and to back your reasons up better."
"At the beginning there wasn't that good of connection," said a girl from Tel Aviv, "but now we're doing better. Our English is improving -- my English teacher will be very proud of me."
"I like the Shabbat ceremonies," said an Israeli boy. "In Tsofim, we don't have a connection to the religious; it's more fun and more beautiful the way you do it here."
"Yeah, everything is very good," said another. Of course, being far from home (for some, the first time ever), homesickness has been part of the Israeli experience, too. When given the opportunity to change into their scout uniforms for a photo, the Israelis whooped and hollered, spontaneously breaking out into Hebrew camp songs with giddy joy.
"I think it will be a shock for them to go back to Israel," Lake said, watching as the Israeli girls walked hand in hand across the great expanse of the future garden to retrieve their uniforms. "When you're worried about your security, you're not thinking about organic farming."
The Shalom Nature Institute is a department of the Shalom Institute, the resident camping arm of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. For more information, please contact Jonathan Fass, director of Jewish Education for the JCC. (323) 938-2531, ext. 2280.