When Luba Dukhovnaya, now 17, immigrated to the United States from Ukraine three years ago, she knew little about Judaism. But this summer, she is traveling through Israel for six weeks to expand her growing knowledge of her Jewish roots.
At an orientation meeting before she left San Francisco earlier this month, Dukhovnaya said religion became an important support system for her and her family during the difficult process of immigration. Now she's convinced that "every Jew has an obligation to go to Israel at some point because it is the land of our ancestors, where our history is based."
Dukhovnaya, however, might have had difficulty fulfilling that obligation if it weren't for the Israel Experience Pilot Project, which paid for 90 percent of her trip. The new nationwide project, aimed at overcoming apathy and assimilation by helping Jewish teenagers travel to Israel, provides information and guidance, as well as finances, connecting young people with specific Israeli tour programs. Dukhovnaya, for example, is traveling with Young Judea; the other 35 participants from the Bay Area have joined programs sponsored by B'nei Akiva, B'nai B'rith, and other groups.
At the orientation, held at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, Dukhovnaya said she was especially eager to see the Western Wall and to learn more Israeli history and Hebrew.
Learning Hebrew was also a goal for Eden Brandwein, 15, who is participating in the B'nei Akiva Mach Hach trip. She said she looks forward to "feeling like I have my own country that accepts me."
Though Brandwein has never been to Israel, she plans to spend the whole year studying there after her tour. "I think once I go there, I'll never want to come back," she said.
Sabrina Zimmerman, one of the teen consultants who helped advise pilot-project participants before they left, traveled to Israel two years ago. "When I got back, I wanted to make aliyah, I wanted to join the Israeli army, I wanted to stay there and never leave," she recalled. Although Zimmerman had to return to the United States, her experience inspired her to work for the Israel Experience Project, to help give other teens the same opportunity.
Many students traveling to Israel, like Brandwein, already feel a strong Jewish identification and have long dreamed of visiting the Jewish state. A primary goal of the Israel Experience, however, is to involve teenagers who may not have a strong religious affiliation — teens like Elan Kamesar, who recently graduated from Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo. Kamesar, now in Israel on a B'nai B'rith trip, said he'd never thought about going there but, "I had to do something this summer."
Though Judaism has not been a primary focus for Kamesar since his bar mitzvah, he said he was hoping for a spiritual experience this summer before he starts college in the fall.
Marenka Cerny, who was the Israel Experience coordinator, said students traveling to Israel benefit from "a new form of informal education." In Israel, she said, "students are walking on the land, hearing the language, learning the history and modern culture — it's an open textbook."
Funding for the Israel Experience is provided by the United Jewish Appeal, which launched the project in conjunction with the Charles R. Bronfman Foundation and a consortium of major Jewish agencies. Each of 12 pilot communities receives up to $100,000 in matching grants — one dollar for every three dollars raised by the community.
The project is sponsored locally by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Local funders include the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation, Albert L. Schultz and Janet A. Schultz Supporting Foundation, Sarlo Family Supporting Foundation and the Jewish Community Endowment/Louis Dessauer Trust.