Exchange program is eye-opener for Israeli teenagers

They may live in the Jewish state, but after a visit to the Bay Area some Israeli teens have decided they often feel less Jewish than their American counterparts.

Recently here under a new exchange program, these teenage kibbutzniks said that unlike the Bay Area teens they have gotten to know, they derive their identities from being Israeli rather than as Jews.

Comparing American Jewish teens to Israelis, 17-year-old Rinat Shafran said, "We listen to the same music, watch the same MTV videos and wear the same Levis jeans." Yet sometimes, she conceded, "it's hard to relate to the fact that we share the same heritage."

For years Shafran and her fellow kibbutzniks have taken into their homes Bay Area Jewish teens traveling on the Summer in Israel Youth Program — a six-week trip for congregational confirmation class students ages 15-17.

The favor was reciprocated for the first time last month, when six Summer in Israel participants treated Israelis on the exchange program to a "home hospitality weekend."

Most of the 11th-and 12th-grade Israelis had never been on a plane, let alone travel outside their country. Some had trouble speaking English. But all agreed that the 10-day visit provided them with a better understanding of the American Jewish diaspora and Bay Area Jewish life.

Chosen for their proven leadership abilities as councilmembers of the Youth Organization of the Upper Galil, the Israeli teens represented a variety of kibbutzim near Kiryat Shmona, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's partner town in the Northern Galilee.

Except airfare, which the youth organization covered, the exchange program was funded by a $10,000 grant in annual campaign funding from the JCF's Overseas Committee. The trip itinerary was coordinated with assistance from the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.

"Our committee had been discussing new ways of forming bonds and building connections between Israeli and Bay Area teens when the idea for this new exchange program came up," said Eve Bernstein, a member of the overseas committee.

Besides living with Bay Area teens for a weekend, the Israeli youths had a dinner discussion with their American contemporaries on growing up Jewish in the United States, and a swim party with past Summer in Israel participants.

They also visited offices of the JCF and Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Museum San Francisco, Congregation Emanu-El and Marin Jewish Community Center.

"More than anything, more than all the touristy things we did, they wanted to learn about the Jewish community. They couldn't get enough of it," said Sandrine Hahn, who leads workshops on Jewish identity and accompanied the teens.

"We had major discussions on the bus about the difference between feeling Israeli and feeling Jewish. I explained that living here in the diaspora, the way we tend to identify as Jews is by studying our traditions…something most of these kibbutz kids rarely do."

The exchange program grant came from $450,000 that the JCF distributes directly to hand-picked Israeli projects and was made in cooperation with Amuta — the federation's volunteer advisory board in Israel. The majority of JCF's nearly $7 million spent overseas goes through the United Jewish Appeal to the Jewish Agency.

Sixteen-year-old Jerome Faust, whose family hosted two Israelis for the hospitality weekend at their San Francisco home, said the teens were "kind of surprised that we had a Shabbat dinner and that we did all the Friday night prayers."

While most of the Israeli teens were aware that Jews comprise just 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, some, like 17-year-old Krol, had no idea that the Bay Area is particularly known for its high assimilation rate.

Yet all the U.S. teens in the Summer in Israel program belong to a synagogue. JCF's Bernstein, whose daughter went on last year's Summer in Israel trip, said her immediate family knows more about Jewish traditions than her Israeli cousins.

"Living in Israel does not always guarantee a full understanding of our Jewish heritage," she said. "These teens can really learn from one another."