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Behind the Headlines: from Mexico City and Long Island, Teen-agers Find Solidarity in Israel

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If Israel-based programs bring Diaspora Jewish youths closer to their Jewish roots — and most Jewish leaders believe they do — then thousands of teens and young adults are returning home this summer with a stronger sense of Jewish identity.

More than 3,500 teens visiting Israel on various summer programs gathered in Jerusalem earlier this month to show their Jewish solidarity and to have a good time.

Sponsored by the youth division of the Jewish Agency/World Zionist Organization, the happening took place in Sachar Park, a vast, lush site near the entrance to the city.

After filling up on watermelon and corn-on-the-cob, the teens — from the United States, Europe and South America — sent thousands of supportive messages to the beleaguered Jewish community of Buenos Aires, where a terrorist bomb last month killed nearly 100 people.

An hour later, the teens marched through the streets of Jerusalem, proudly carrying banners proclaiming their affiliations with Young Judaea, Betar, B’nai Akiva and a dozen other youth groups.

Arriving at City Hall Plaza, they were greeted by Mayor Ehud Olmert and Jewish Agency officials, and then treated to a concert by David Broza, a popular Israeli singer.

Shlomo Gravetz, chairman of the agency’s youth division, called the event “a way for the kids to express their identity with the Jewish people.

“The first such gathering took place last year, and they seemed to have a great time,” he said. “For many, it was evidently the first time they had the feeling of being part of a whole, a member of the Jewish people.”

‘SECURITY ISSUES DAMAGED US’

The youth department had originally expected at least 8,000 Diaspora teens to visit Israel this year.

But it had to reduce its expectations after the Hebron massacre in February, when a West Bank settler opened fire on Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque.

Following that incident, and other related terrorist attacks, some parents, especially in the United States, decided against sending their children to Israel.

“Security issues damaged us,” Gravetz admitted. “In America, people subscribe to Israel summer programs from October to April.

“After Hebron and Afula, registration dropped considerably,” he said, referring to the terrorist bombing of an Israeli bus in the central city of Afula, killing eight Israeli passengers.

Still, Gravetz said he expected 7,000 participants by the end of the year.

Referring to the link between Israel-based programs and Jewish identity, Gravitz said, “There is no doubt that once kids come to Israel, they are deeply influenced by what Israel has to offer.

“There is a special atmosphere here, and kids begin getting acquainted with Jewish heritage and tradition, with their spiritual homeland. Evaluations have shown that once a teen visits Israel, he or she is more committed to being Jewish, and is more aware of the danger of intermarriage,” he said.

Although the teens gathered in Sachar Park came from dozens of countries and a wide variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, their reactions to the “Israel experience” were surprisingly similar.

Asked whether the time they have spent in Israel has influenced their Jewish identity, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

“It’s been an incredible experience,” said Dan Most, a 16-year-old from Long Island, New York. Most, who is on a “Teens See Israel” trip, said he was deeply moved by his first visit to the Western Wall.

“Thousands of people from different countries were praying together,” he said.

“They didn’t speak the same language, but they knew how to pray together. It made me feel like I belong somewhere, that they would accept me, a stranger, because I’m Jewish.”

He said the trip has “put me more in touch with my Jewish side.”

Asked if he considers intermarriage an option, he replied, “My parents don’t want me to marry outside my religion, and I wouldn’t give up being Jewish.

“But if I met a non-Jewish woman, I probably wouldn’t give her up because of her religion. I want my children to be Jewish, though.”

Joseph Mansur, 14, from Mexico City, said his visit to Israel “has definitely changed my life. It’s changed the way I think about religion. In Mexico I don’t put on tefillin very often, but here I do.”

Still shaken by the recent terrorist attack in Argentina, Mansur said he often sees swastikas in the streets of Mexico City.

Yet, despite the anti-Semitism, he said he has no plans to make aliyah. “I like Israel, but not to live.”

Sixteen-year-old Emma Reeves from Totteridge, England, agreed. “I like Israel, but I don’t feel really strongly that this is my home and I should be here.”

But, she added, “Israel has definitely strengthened my Jewish identity.

“We’ve visited sites and learned a lot of Jewish history I’d never heard before,” she said, summing up the views of many of the teen-agers. “I’m having a good time.”

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