The camel ride was among the best moments of Flynne Hustein's trip to Israel this past summer.
"The camels had attitudes and made funny noises and expressions," the Palo Alto teen said. "Also, when they go to sit down, it's hind-end first, so you really have to hang on."
Hustein was also particularly struck by Israel's national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and its children's memorial, which is dark except for candles that mirrors multiply millions of times. "It was beautiful," Hustein wrote, "and being in there was like being in outer space, the multiplied candle flames seemed like stars."
The two written reactions come from Hustein's journal, excerpts of which she submitted to a new creative writing and photo contest for teens who have spent four weeks or more on a program in Israel.
Inaugurated this year, the contest is sponsored by the Israel Experience, a collaboration of the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
Funded by the federation's Jewish Community Endowment Fund, the Israel Experience supports youth travel to Israel by marketing programs and recruiting for them, as well as organizing post-Israel events that aim to keep teens' connection to Israel alive. The essay contest is part of the latter effort.
Some 74 teens submitted writings and photos, both of which capture everything from the serious to the light-hearted.
Among the more serious photographs are Fremont resident Abigail Gelb's first- prize photo of an Israel flag flying above the shore at Rosh Hanikra, where Israel meets Lebanon. Other of the more subdued photos show a close-up of notes crammed into a crevice of the Western Wall and a man praying at sunrise in the Negev Desert.
Some shots are more whimsical, however, like the picture of a camel with a particularly unflattering expression on its face, the shot of four boys joyfully kicking up sand as they jump down a Negev dune, the shot of tired post-hiking feet.
Other photos simply convey Israel's natural beauty: A number capture sunrise from the top of Masada.
The writings are equally varied. Joel Hopman of Tracy netted second prize (and a $150 gift certificate to The Gap), with a letter written to his brother on the flight home from a five-week B'nai B'rith Youth Organization program in Israel.
"To see the exact spots that are mentioned in the Torah is a feeling some will not have the chance to experience," Hopman wrote. "I thought about you when I stood where David defeated Goliath."
Third-prize winner Julie Fishkin of San Francisco wrote an essay detailing the emotions she felt when visiting the Western Wall.
"All I see in front of me is a wall. Gigantic in size, but that is it," wrote the teen, who won a $100 gift certificate to Wherehouse records for her efforts. "All I think of when I stand there are all the young boys and girls who died to capture it."
Elisha Wolfin, one of the contest judges, said in reviewing the entries, he was struck by the number of young people who wrote about the Wailing Wall.
"It's just incredible how a wall of rock and stone is so powerful to 16-year-olds, who are otherwise cynical and not too moved by walls that they usually see," said Wolfin, who works at the Israel Center in Oakland and has led summer teen trips to Israel through the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.
An Israeli, Wolfin judged the contest together with Mickey Naggar Bourne, director of teen programs at the BJE, along with leaders of local Jewish youth groups.
Aside from essays and photos, the contest attracted many poems. These, both rhyming and free verse, offer reflections on everything from Jerusalem to Lake Kinneret to the Negev, as in this poem by Donna Zulman of Palo Alto, one of two winners of honorable mention:
Sand and rock,
Browns cut by blue,
"There were a few that really, really moved me," Wolfin said of the entries.
In particular, Wolfin said he was touched by those "where I felt the young adult really `got it', really got Israel and what it's all about — the conflicts, the good, the bad, the tragic, the beautiful."