Even as organizations are canceling their summer Israel programs, for some teens already in Israel the experience is proving invaluable.
A dozen 10th-grade Shalhevet High School students in the middle of a six-week study trip in Israel held a videoconference last week with their classmates back home in Los Angeles. "We told them they should be here, we're having the best time," Nancy Nazarian, 16, enthused about her second trip to Israel.
The L.A. students live in dormitories with Israelis. Boys are housed in a Bnei Akiva yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh and the girls at Ulpana Amana in Kfar Sava. "My Hebrew has really improved living with these guys," Ethan Samuels said.
The Shalhevet teens have four full days of classes each week, with Jewish studies in the mornings and a regular program of secular lessons in economics, math, chemistry and literature in the afternoons. Two days of touring follow, including special Shabbat programs with Israeli teenagers.
Although there are restrictions on their movements due to security concerns, the group has already seen and experienced many aspects of the country not on the usual tourist itinerary.
Two days in Gadna, the pre-army preparatory training program, left the L.A. students with some strong impressions.
"I really learned how the entire country is on standby," said Ben Silver, who with his black knitted kipah, intense brown eyes and dark sideburns looks like a young Israeli. "It's all teamwork."
The girls show off their bruised arms, a result of diving into thorns and crawling on hands and knees. "It's amazing to see how seriously everyone takes it," Sarah Mayman noted.
Paul Nisenbaum, Shalhevet's assistant principal, is intensely proud of the students who chose to be in Israel at this time. "They and their parents are giborim [heroes]," he said. "The fact that they're here at this point in Israel's history is very special." Nisenbaum accompanied the group for the first three weeks of the trip. Community leader Jerry Friedman, a founder of Shalhevet High School, will replace him for the final weeks.
Only halfway through their Israel experience, the students have been intensely affected. "We're getting a hard and bitter taste that our blood is in this country. I feel so connected with my people here," Nancy Nazarian said.
The teenagers have already thought about how they will share their experiences when they get home. Plans call for a photo essay to be exhibited at area high schools and in The Jewish Federation's Goldsmith Center. Students hope to be able to talk to local media, too.
Ben Silver summed up the attitude of the group. "When you get married, you sign a vow never to give up on each other. We've made our own marriage with this country. We love Israel, and we'll stand by her as the problems come and go."