My summer vacation: 10 days in Israel with 26 amazing teens

I’m still brushing sand out of my suitcase, but I don’t mind. It’s that velvety stuff from the beaches of Tel Aviv that sticks to everything, as if it doesn’t want you to leave.

I just returned from a 10-day trip with Write On for Israel. Sponsored by BlueStar PR, the program teaches journalism and documentary filmmaking skills to local Jewish teens, culminating in a free trip to Israel. The goal: Turn high school seniors into fierce pro-Israel advocates.

Like last year, I served as WOFI’s journalism teacher. This year, six adult staffers chaperoned 26 teens all over the country. In addition to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we traveled from a northern kibbutz near the Lebanese border, to Sderot, the southern Israeli town bombarded with 8,000 Hamas rockets launched from the Gaza Strip since Israel disengaged five years ago.

We stood on a hilltop 1,400 yards from Gaza. With a stiff Mediterranean wind in our faces, we looked out on the minarets, shocked at the proximity. Had we yelled hello, our voices might have carried all the way to Jabiliya.

Up north, we toured the Sapir station, which sends millions of gallons of Lake Kinneret water to the national aqueduct. Three huge turbines, which use 1 percent of Israel’s electricity, propel the water up a steep grade.

We stood on a bluff overlooking the security barrier near the West Bank city of Jenin, where an Israel Defense Forces officer briefed us. Once the epicenter of the intifada, Jenin is now a boomtown, with employment rising and terrorism receding. Our host said the most common border crossings these days involve smuggling cigarettes and eggs.

We met with Arab Israeli teens at a youth center in the Bedouin town Tuba Zangariya. Under  questioning from our kids, the Arab teens offered bland pronouncements about peace. Somehow I didn’t believe them, suspecting they were coached. How I want to be wrong.

However, my favorite aspect of the trip was our brilliant, nervy and hilariously funny teens.

I’ll never forget Jacob the indestructible, playing basketball under a twilit Galilee sky, going 100 percent on a fractured tibia and occasionally muttering, “Wow, this really hurts.”

I’ll remember Maya, an ace poker player and movie trivia grand master (she knew Ursula Andress played Honey Ryder in “Dr. No”). And Sonya, who recited from memory Rudyard Kipling’s majestic poem “If —.”

I loved Gabi scoping out a grand piano at our kibbutz so she could practice Chopin. And Julia, so moved by the beauty of the lakeside grave of Israeli poetess Rachel that she blurted out, “I want to be buried here!” And Ariele, visiting Israel for the first time and thrilled to note in our Tel Aviv hotel, “This is a Jewish towel! This is a Jewish fake plant!”

I can still see Faina doing cartwheels on the beach, and Rachel grabbing her flip camera to do an impromptu interview for her documentary on Ethiopian Jews. I can picture Elijah, resembling an escapee from “Lord of the Flies,” storming the girls’ raft on our Jordan River excursion.

I’ll remember Alystar crouching before a crying Israeli toddler separated from her parents in the Old City. There was nothing she could do to help the child, but the look of anguish in her eyes said everything about Alystar’s character.

And Ian, a talented writer of hip-hop lyrics, who roped me into rapping a verse with him at our last group meeting. Would you believe I did not make a total fool of myself?

For their last writing assignment I asked the teens to sum up the Israel experience. Danyal came up with a stunning observation: She wrote of the Jordan River as a surprisingly tiny stream yet mighty nonetheless, and how Israel, too, is both tiny and mighty. I couldn’t have come up with a better metaphor.

Then there was Jonah, an Orthodox teen who had no return ticket to California. He stayed in Israel to begin a year of study at a yeshiva. He, like all WOFI students, ended the trip with a deeper understanding of Israel, as well as an enduring love of the country.

I asked him if he worried about feeling homesick during his year at the yeshiva. “No,” he told me. “I’m home.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.