Rainforests will replace ancient Israel for BJE teens

Imagine learning about the creation of heaven and earth in a setting where you can swing from treetop to treetop, in what's called a cloud forest, looking down at the abundant greenery below.

If you are a Diller teen, you won't have to imagine it at all. In just three weeks, the 14 participants in this Jewish leadership program will take part in their own story of Beresheet — with a twist: They will learn about the creation of the world, amid the natural beauty of Costa Rica.

The detour to Central America was hastily planned. The S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's yearlong Diller program usually culminates with a four-week visit to Israel. But because of the security situation, all area Israel trips were recently canceled.

When this news got out, Deb Fink's phone started ringing. Teens who thought they were Israel-bound this summer, suddenly had no plans. "Some said they were going to go to camp or get a job," said the Diller teen program director.

Fink, too, was upset that the Israel stay had been nixed, and she still wanted the teenagers to have some kind of trip together. So, thanks to a combination of the Internet and personal connections, she found a last-minute substitute.

The program will be learning-intensive, Fink said, with a strong community service component, in fitting with the Diller ideology. "It won't be just another 'Jews in canoes' trip."

Fink used the Web to locate a Chicago-based outfit called Endangered Spirit, which organizes trips both in the United States and abroad, combining Jewish learning and environmental education.

Once the director of Endangered Spirit, Aaron Katler, heard what Fink was looking for, he told her about a brother and sister he works with, Stephen and Lisa Brooks. Their business, Costa Rican Adventures, had hosted some Jewish singles groups and was slowly making more forays into Jewish educational trips. One such trip is planned through Berkeley's Chochmat HaLev, for later this summer.

When Fink learned about the trip, she knew she had hit on something.

Stephen Brooks spends most of the year in Costa Rica. Lisa recently moved to the Bay Area, and is running the American part of the business in Oakland.

And, as often turns out in the Jewish world, it's a small world indeed: Lisa Brooks is a Jewish educator who studied with Fink in Jerusalem some years ago. Also, someone at the BJE had heard glowing reviews of Katler's trips, and after references were checked, everything fell into place.

Costa Rica's natural beauty will "provide us with an incredible opportunity to explore text and Jewish identity, and what that means especially since we can't be in Israel," said Fink.

Lisa Brooks said the teens will meet people indigenous to the land and learn how they maintain their culture, often a powerful experience for visiting Jews.

Stephen Brooks first visited Costa Rica in 1995, and in 1996 brought the first group of students there. He and his sister have continued to bring in groups, mostly of high school students.

On a remote piece of land he bought, called Monkey Point, or Puta Mona, Brooks grows 180 species of organic vegetables, relies on solar energy and uses a contraption that coverts human waste into cooking gas. The spot is only reachable after a two-hour hike or a 15-minute boat ride from the nearest town, and is bordered by the rainforests and the beach, where it is often possible to watch turtles nest. The teens will spend their first Shabbat there.

"It's a really good fit to do Jewish programming in this place," said Lisa Brooks. "There's such a clear connection between nature and spirituality and there's so much ancient wisdom about the environment and indigenous peoples, and especially how they manage to maintain their culture when their rainforest is being taken away from them."

The teens will satisfy the community service element by putting on a kind of carnival for local children in a nearby village.

The Americans will spend their second Shabbat, as well as Tisha B'Av, with the Jewish community of some 3,000 in San Jose. While typically not so open to outsiders, the local Jews have welcomed groups that the Brooks siblings have brought to Costa Rica.

Robert Sherman, executive director of the S.F.-based BJE, said that after Fink stumbled upon the program, they realized "this seemed to be tailor-made for what we were looking for.

"Everyone recognizes that this in no way replaces Israel, and can't do the same thing, but it did allow us to meet other educational objectives," said Sherman, whose daughter, Ayala, is a Diller teen.

Jeanne Feuerstein, a San Francisco Diller teen, said she knows little about Costa Rica. She was excited about going there, but still felt somewhat bad about bypassing Israel.

"There's this feeling that as Americans we're not giving Israel a big enough hand as we should, but it's for safety," she said.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman of Foster City, whose daughter, Rena, is a Diller teen, said that while it sounds like an unbelievable opportunity, "there's a little ambivalence because our kids are going to be having an unbelievable experience, and the teens they were going to spend time with in Israel aren't. Some of those teens are getting ready for the army."

As a Jewish educator herself, Lisa Brooks said it "breaks my heart that the kids can't go to Israel." But Costa Rica offers an opportunity that is unique in its own way.

"The kids are exploring what their Jewish identity is in a place where you could totally lose it," she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."