S.F. students find common ground in Israeli exchange

Michelle Fong assumed teens in Israel were utterly different from American teenagers. Then she met some.

“We found that we listened to the same music,” she said. “And when they said, ‘Oh, my parents are so embarrassing,’ we said, ‘Us, too!’ Some of our concerns were universal. We connected to them just as we connect to teens here.”

Fong, a bubbly senior at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, was one of seven students in the San Francisco Unified School District to travel to Israel in November as part of a cultural exchange with the America-Israel Friendship League.

She was supposed to go to Israel last year, but the trip was canceled because of the Lebanon War. So she was particularly excited to be able to go this year, and equally excited to give presentations in all of her classes on her return (a requirement of the program).

“I was flooded with questions,” she said.

“Which is really the whole point,” piped up Celi Tamayo-Lee, a junior at Lowell High School who also participated in the cultural exchange. “We’re taking what we learned and bringing it back to the community.”

The cultural exchange is unique in that it’s not intended for Jewish students, although American Jews are welcome to apply, said Wendy Kenin, executive director of AIFL’s San Francisco chapter.

The goal of the program is to educate public school students about the diversity of Israel and the complexity of its culture, which is not visible in the nightly newscasts that tend to focus on land disputes, religion and violence.

“This program is about people becoming exposed to and aware of the diversity of Israel, to understand there is a bigger picture,” Kenin said.

The cultural exchange did not start in Israel. The San Francisco students first read and discussed a book about the cultural and ethnic diversity of Israel. Then, Israeli and American students (100 in all) convened in Washington and New York, spending one week in the two cities. They visited museums, public schools and the United Nations, while also participating in workshops about stereotypes and multiculturalism.

After that, the American students flew to Israel for 10 days. The San Francisco students stayed in Shoham, a new, high-tech town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cities where they did plenty of sightseeing.

None of the students had been to Israel, and some had never traveled abroad. Many would not have been able to attend if the program wasn’t entirely paid for by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and several other local foundations.

Aaron Villanueva, a quiet but streetwise junior at Galileo High School, said he gained a broader personal perspective from the trip.

“Before, I was less confident and not brave enough. Now I see that I can do something bigger and better in life,” he said.

Tamayo-Lee plans to put her newfound appreciation for Israel to use with an online pen pal program that will connect San Francisco and Israeli teens via email. She plans to spend her winter break writing grant proposals to get the project off the ground.

Kenin said that despite the benefits of the cultural exchange, she struggles each year to raise the $5,000 per student in local funding to keep the program going. The money from the federation and other organizations isn’t guaranteed from year to year.

“It’s such an indispensable part of what the Jewish community is doing to make the Bay Area more aware of what Israel is really about,” she said. “But the funding hasn’t demonstrated the commitment. It’s a real struggle just to keep it going in San Francisco Unified, when we’d like to be doing it in multiple school districts.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.