On a bright Monday morning, a group of 57 American and Israeli 11th-graders spilled onto the lawn behind Coit Tower in San Francisco. Backdropped by panoramic views of the bay, the teenagers mingled in groups, making it hard to tell who was American and who was Israeli. Several practiced a dance routine they’d been working on, while one boy sprang backflips on the grass.
“The first day we were here, I just tried it, and I landed it,” said Israeli Dan Rave, a rollerblader with a sweep of straight brown hair, about learning to backflip on Baker Beach. “I was really hype.”
It was the start of the eighth and final day of Mifgash 2019 (Hebrew for “encounter”) — the first American-Israeli teen exchange program put together by educators at Contra Costa Midrasha.
The event, which organizers hope to make an annual tradition, brought 28 Israeli teenagers to the Bay Area to live with host families and tour the area in two charter buses along with U.S. teens from the East Bay Jewish community. The number of U.S. teens varied by day, but one day the total number of kids and staff was 72, organizer Julia Babka-Kurzrock said.
A teacher at Contra Costa Midrasha and the Mifgash program coordinator, Babka-Kurzrock served as a full-throated troupe leader, shepherding the students from one activity to the next. She counted off one to 57 as the students descended the seemingly endless staircase from atop Telegraph Hill.
“It’s amazing. We have teens from every Jewish community in the East Bay,” Babka-Kurzrock said, of the American cohort. “We had kids join in the middle of the week because their friends told them it was awesome.”
A recurring motif from the week was a hand gesture that everyone agreed captured the feel of the program. Offering to demonstrate was counselor Israel Lev, a basketball coach at the Israeli kids’ high school (part of Mosenson Youth Village in Hod HaSharon, outside Tel Aviv).
As Lev held his hands up, palms facing out, he explained. “We started like this,” he said, his hands representing the Israeli group and the American group. Then he interlocked his fingers into a web. “Now we’re like this.”
Enabled by support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Teen Initiative and the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, Mifgash has a simple aim: to help spark a connection to Israel for Bay Area teenagers, said Devra Aarons, executive director of Contra Costa Midrasha.
“We want to connect our teens to Israel by bringing Israel to them,” she said, gesturing to the dancers. “And look how connected they are.”
The Israeli students arrived June 17, greeted with a welcome message from Ravit Baer, S.F.-based Israeli deputy consul general. The Israeli government, via the consulate general’s office, lent support to the program, as did congregations B’nai Tikvah and B’nai Shalom (Walnut Creek) and Beth Chaim (Danville), the Buttercup Diner in Walnut Creek, the JCC of Contra Costa and the federations on both sides of the bay. Semifreddis donated pastries.
The trip saw the teens visit the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Chinatown and the Mission District. They also toured the Google and Apple campuses, visited Stanford and UC Berkeley and toured a 170-year-old congregation in San Francisco (Sherith Israel).
And took photos with the sea lions at Pier 39, of course. “Oh my God,” said Babka-Kurzrock. “Their reaction was great. A lot of the kids had never seen [sea lions] before.”
Many of the U.S. students said they never had met Israelis their age, and were struck by their similarities. The Israelis were wowed by the beauty of San Francisco, the look of its houses (“so many colors”) and by its often cartoonish topography.
“You really have to be in shape to live here,” Israeli Roni Dor said with a laugh.
Dor was on U.S. soil for the first time. A talented pianist who serenaded the group whenever possible, Dor attributed her sparkling English to reading books and watching American TV shows. She said the highlight of her trip was Shabbat, which she spent hanging out with her host family.
“It was just me, my friend and our host [East Bay teen Berrydal Moshe-Hayat]. We went shopping and it was really fun.”
Rave couldn’t name just one moment that stuck out to him. “The highlight of my week is just being with other Jewish teens my age,” he said.
Abby Lusherovich, an incoming high school junior in Walnut Creek, said one of her favorite moments was the first time they met the Israelis.
“They had just gotten off the flight, but they were so open and excited,” she said. “I’m usually not that much of a talker, but they just started so many conversations.”
The Israelis and Americans shared foods that they can’t get in their home country, such as Hi-Chew fruit chews (available in the U.S.) and Israeli chocolate bars.
Shannah Saul’s family somehow ended up hosting four Israeli girls, which was “chaos,” she said. The San Ramon student cherished the “crazy deep connection” that formed between the two groups of teens.
Saul said she and her fellow Americans especially got a kick out of seeing the Israelis experience things she and her friends see all the time.
“Like seeing the bridge for the first time. They were like, ‘Oh my God!’ she said. “And we were standing there like, ‘It’s just a bridge.’”
Saul and many others said they were surprised by how close they had become with their Israeli counterparts. On the last day, the students made each other promise to stay on the WhatsApp group they’d created. Some took sand from Ocean Beach as a keepsake.
Later this year, organizers hope to send the U.S. students to Hod HaSharon, to complete the exchange.
“We always say, it went from this,” Saul said, interlocking her fingers, “to this.”