Ever since she was a young girl, Rebecca Solo looked forward to when she would be old enough to visit Israel through a program, following the path that many teenagers at her synagogue take during high school.
And even though things have changed since she was young -- violence is up and tourism down more than 80 percent, according to recent figures -- Solo's desire to visit Israel did not change. "I decided that I was going, and no one was stopping me," said Solo, who returned from a trip to Poland and Israel in August that was sponsored by the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).
Solo, who attends Hamilton High School's Academy of Music, is one of the declining number of Jewish students who visited Israel this summer, despite opposition from many of their peers, and sometimes, their parents. But Solo, like most of the students who went to Israel, said the experience proved invaluable.
Whether the focus of the visit was touring, volunteering or studying, students who went to Israel this summer returned more well-informed about the current situation in the Middle East and with a clearer understanding of Israeli daily life. For many of them, the most important part was knowing that they had made a contribution to the Jewish State in its time of need.
"When I was there, we did some shopping, and the shopkeepers liked us to go into their shops, because there are no tourists ... they really need us there," Solo said.
To help out Israel, nine students from Shalhevet High School and the Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA) participated in a three-week volunteer mission to Israel. The trip, which involved myriad hands-on volunteer tasks, stemmed from the vision of two YULA students who believed that merely touring was not enough for a country in crisis. They wanted to help.
"It was a feeling that we have to be there right now," said Daniel Korda, who, along with fellow YULA 11th-grader Yael Kessler, created the program because they were unable to find a volunteer option that suited their needs. Korda and Kessler approached Adam Mallerman, director of Bnei Akiva Los Angeles, who helped organize the trip, which was made possible through financial support from the Jewish Agency in Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and private donations.
"Israel would be there for us if we needed it," Korda said. "It has always been there, and it will always be there. There was never a question of volunteering."
"The hardest part of the trip was convincing the parents," he continued. "There were parents who up until the flight were reconsidering. Some kids were literally almost pulled off the plane."
The volunteer group played with the children at an Ethiopian Absorption Center, packed food for soldiers at an army base, comforted patients at several hospitals, helped build a retaining wall in Tzefat and visited victims of terror and their families.
"You look at what's going on in Israel today, and you have to go, and to go and be able to volunteer is an amazing thing," Korda said. "You're putting something back into the country."
Sarah Keyes, an 11th-grader who pulled out of a different trip when she heard about the Shalhevet-YULA group, was eager to volunteer. "You never know when American Jews are going to need Israel, because if something were to happen here, than Israel is the only place that we could go, and we have to support them."
The leader of the trip, Menachem Litenatsky, a special education consultant at Shalhevet High School, was impressed by the group. "It showed me what just a few people can do, especially kids their age who are usually self-absorbed. It renewed some of my own strength," he said.
Most schools and teens planning trips to Israel have to deal with concerned parents. "Things were so bad this year that even the parents who wanted to send their child to Israel were under incredible pressure from their family members and their friends ... many of them buckled under the pressure, said Paul Reichenbach, director of NFTY Israel programs.
While tourism for young students is down, the decline seems to be even more pronounced among L.A. teens, said Gil Graf, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. Graf noted that while Los Angeles has the second largest Jewish population in the United States (10 percent of the nation's Jews), these numbers were not represented proportionally this past summer.
Historically, the most popular Israel programs among Los Angeles teens had been the Conservative movement's national United Synagogue Youth (USY) and Ramah programs. This summer both trips had a combined total of 150 participants.
Of the 150 participants, less than 3 percent were from Los Angeles. Additionally, the Reform movement's NFTY program had only one Los Angeles participant.
The largest contingency of participants from Los Angeles came from Orthodox-affiliated programs. "If you compare the normal summer attendance in the Conservative and Reform programs with this past summer, there is a level of decline, but in the Orthodox programs it is more stable in terms of continuing participation," Graf said.
This summer, 20 Los Angeles-area students participated in the movement's National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) program; only one-fifth of the 100 Los Angeles participants in 2000.
While Jewish leaders are concerned about the drop and its long-term effects on Jewish identity, in the immediate future, they are concentrating on quality over quantity.
"The kids going now are more idealistic and looking for more volunteer programs," said Rabbi Steven Burg, NCSY West Coast regional director. He said NCSY is looking to develop a program in which participants will spend two to three weeks volunteering on an Israeli army base and two weeks touring.
Sophie Philman, Israel's emissary for the USY Far West region, said that the majority of students who continue to sign up for Israel trips are generally from more religious families or from families who have strong Zionist values.
"The first kids who pulled out were from families who didn't have one of those components," Philman said. "It's a cycle, but if the trip was what could give them a component, many are not going to develop it, and that's our biggest fear."
USY added volunteerism to all of its Israel programs this summer, Philman said. Students visited victims of terror and their families and various hospitals.
Next year, the organization is considering instituting several new programs with social action focuses, including a Wheels Mitzvah Mission -- an offshoot of the organization's well-established USY on Wheels program, in which students spend six weeks traversing the United States, while simultaneously participating in social-action activities. If introduced, the Wheels Mitzvah Mission will follow the framework of the USY on Wheels Program, but it will be offered in Israel.
While programs may be changing in order to adapt to Israel's current state of affairs, the lasting impression that comes as a result of visiting Israel has not changed. After her experience on the NFTY trip this summer, Solo decided that she will make aliyah as soon as she graduates college.
And for other students her age, Solo has a bit of advice: "Don't just listen to what the news has to tell you, because that's not the only thing that's going on there."
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