While San Francisco’s Chinatown usually is humming with the chatter of tourists, conversations between Asian shopkeepers and the jingling of wind chimes, on July 12 Grant Avenue buzzed with an unfamiliar sound: the guttural and Semitic vibrations of Hebrew.
The buzz came from 20 young, enthusiastic Israeli campers and five counselors in Northern California who were sponsored by the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ San Francisco/Bay Area chapter. Executive director Jonathan Bernstein and board chairman Ofer Zur accompanied the group on their city adventure, handling the logistics of a packed itinerary: Chinatown, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf (with boat ride) and a tour at Letterman Digital Arts Center.
But these campers, ages 12 and 13, were not just any young Israelis — all have lost a brother or father in the IDF, as have the counselors, many of whom were campers once themselves.
“They’re celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah without their loved one, so we’re giving them a treat, to connect with America and give them the gift of getting out of Israel,” Bernstein said. “Because once you’re in a family that lost someone in the army, it’s not something you can just switch on and off.”
Counselor Uri Shay, 21, a paratrooper in a special IDF unit, was a camper in the same Legacy program eight years ago.
“I think the kids have fun, forget a little bit what happened in their home,” he said. “We try not to talk [about their lost family member]. If some of them want to talk about it, we don’t stop him; because of this we are here. I tell them it’s OK to miss them, it’s OK to cry, but it shouldn’t stop them.”
Eden Hadassi, 20, a guide for combat soldiers, is another counselor who had participated in the program as a young teen.
“That experience was amazing for me because I got to meet all the other kids who lost someone important in their lives and I got to talk about it with someone else, and not only my parents,” she said. “I chose to do it as a counselor because I think it’s important to have this connection with kids, ’cause I know what they’re feeling and I can help them.”
The day in San Francisco was the second-to-last stop on their two-week visit, starting with Eden Village West summer camp in Healdsburg for 10 days and ending with a three-day homestay in Palo Alto. The program is not new; FIDF has been bringing groups of Israeli teenagers to the U.S. for many years. In the past they’ve gone to Camp Ramah in Southern California and other Jewish overnight camps on the East Coast. But this is the first year the program has come to Northern California, and it’s something Bernstein has wanted for some time.
“We fought pretty hard to get the organization to do this,” he said on the misty late morning. “We had to really use some elbows and did a lot of fundraising.”
Seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter, no one would guess that loss and grief are what brought these kids together. That is a goal of the program, allowing them to have a fun cultural experience 7,000 miles from home where they can heal, be distracted and maybe talk about their feelings in a removed environment.
“It’s really beautiful and it’s a place where you can take a deep breath and relax,” said Alina, 12. “It’s better and more quiet than what we have in Israel.”
In Chinatown, the kids bought San Francisco-embossed souvenirs — keychains, mini license plates, rainbow flip-flops adorned with multi-colored glitter.
“They’re beautiful,” one girl said, holding four keychains.
They took photos in front of Chinese tchotchkes before taking a bus to the top of Lombard Street and then walking back down the steep, winding sidewalk. Zur frequently called out “yamina” (right) and other directions in Hebrew to keep campers away from cars or other pedestrians, but the students seemed unfazed, perhaps already accustomed to the reckless abandon of many Israeli drivers.
Another bus ride took the students to Aquatic Park for a lunch catered by L’Chaim Foods. They praised the greenery and beauty of San Francisco.
“There are a lot of beautiful places here,” said Lior, 12. “All the nature and the green, the trees and the flowers are really beautiful. In Israel there aren’t so many trees and colorful houses, we just have regular buildings.”
After lunch, lined up on a bench in front of the Ghirardelli Square sign, Bernstein asked the kids if they knew what they were looking at.
“Chocolate!” one exclaimed.
And then, with the enthusiasm of Oprah Winfrey telling audience members to look under their seats for a surprise gift, Bernstein pulled out milk chocolate bars and handed one to each student and counselor.
A boat ride in heavy fog under the Golden Gate Bridge followed, providing plenty of scenery for photos. The day concluded in the Presidio at Letterman Digital Arts Center, which houses replicas, posters and props from many well-known films. Most students were fans of “Star Wars” and other films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Ghostbusters,” which the tour guide spoke about.
Afterward, everyone got on a bus to meet their host families in Palo Alto, where they would spend Shabbat before departing back to their hometowns.