213 Bay Area teens prepare to encounter Israel this summer

Rebecca Mall was nervous, "really nervous."

She left for Israel yesterday. And while she wasn't concerned about security or being far from home, the idea of "being in a Jewish country with Jewish kids" was fairly daunting.

So the 15-year-old from Tiburon is facing her fears head on.

A participant in the six-week S.F.-based Summer in Israel Youth Program, Mall will be spending one week living and working on a kibbutz.

"It seemed the one thing that could only be done in Israel, away from America. It seems so different, so foreign," said Mall, a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

On both sides of the Bay, a six-week Israel summer trip is not only an initial foray in the Jewish continuity battle, it's a rite of passage usually following a year of confirmation-class studies.

Yesterday, the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education sent 155 teens on a plane to Israel. Next week, the East Bay federation's Agency for Jewish Education is set to send 58 youths — its largest group to date.

Both trips send teens to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights, visiting historical and modern sites. Leaders of both trips are aiming for increased personal connections to the country.

According to Mickey Naggar Bourne, coordinator of Israel programs for the BJE, a new "interest-week" component was added to provide a more in-depth, personal experience.

Participants can choose five days of learning, eating, working and dancing with the founders and families of Kibbutz Gezer (settled in the 1980s by mostly Americans), participating in the Israel Defense Force's Gadna, (a youth scouting program), or joining an arts or hiking program.

"It's an opportunity for immersion into Israeli life," said Naggar Bourne.

Similarly, after sailing from Italy to Haifa, recreating the post-Holocaust exodus of European Jews seeking a better life, East Bay youths will travel for 10 days with their Israeli peers from Kibbutz Kturah.

Together they will ride buses, sightsee and celebrate Shabbat in Israeli homes.

Kobi Sharon, Israel shaliach (emissary) and director of the Israel Center at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, hopes the "encounters with 40 Israelis" will give American teens a better flavor for the country.

"We don't want an air-conditioned bus with windows to isolate us from the people of the country," Sharon said.

David Blum, 15, a member of Congregation Beth El and a Berkeley resident, likes the idea of spending time with Israeli teens. "It will help us to know the people and the culture better," he said.

However, the real excitement for Blum is the opportunity to climb Masada and scuba dive in Eilat.

Lafayette resident Janice Brodsky, 15 and a member of Temple Israel in Alameda, is looking forward to the boat ride from Italy to Israel. But mostly she's "just hoping for a good time."

These sorts of expectations are fine with Naggar Bourne and Sharon. They say the teens' decision to travel to Israel, rather than Europe or elsewhere, makes more of a statement than the motivations they attempt to articulate.

"I think [visiting Israel is] the first step in belonging to a Jewish life," Sharon said. "Understanding Israel and the relationship between Jews in America and Israel is the preparation for the next step — another visit, another commitment."

Meanwhile, students like Mall have already committed themselves to Judaism. They're searching for greater meaning and understanding now.

"I love the community of my religion. I love my rabbi," Mall explained. "But I've never loved the religion for just the religion and all it stands for," she said.

"I've been to Europe and Mexico, but there's so much more to Israel. I feel there's something more I'm supposed to get out of it because I'm Jewish."