Elite military forces fighting for a Jewish state in Palestine rescued 600 Jewish teen-agers from their British captors after a daring sea journey that brought the refugees to the shores of Palestine from war-torn Italy.
The rescue on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea unfolded not in 1947, but earlier this month. It was all part of an elaborate re-enactment of a dramatic chapter of Zionist history staged for American Jewish teens traveling to Israel for summer programs.
The only difference was — this time they made it. Unlike the 4,500 refugees aboard the Exodus ’47 who never made it to Palestine, these teens did.
The simulation capped off a four-day exodus, complete with gunboat escorts and a vintage British scout plane.
The Youth and Hechalutz Department of the World Zionist Organization brought the teens to Israel as a way of tracing the footsteps of the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled Europe after the Holocaust.
The voyage taken by the Exodus ’47 — made famous by Leon Uris’ novel and the subsequent movie starring Paul Newman — was one of the many ships engaged in Aliyah Bet, the illegal immigration of Jews to pre-State Israel during the 1930s and 1940s.
"The Exodus was a pivotal point in Jewish history and to re-experience it is a remarkable experience," said Stephen Steinberg, 16, who was on his way to an Israel program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay in Oakland, Calif.
More than 15 summer programs came together to transport teens from across the United States on the weeklong Exodus ’95 program.
A total of 1,800 American teens traveled via ship. Two of three ships left from Brindisi, in the south of Italy. A third ship sailed from Athens.
In addition, a fourth ship is scheduled to set sail with French Jewish teens at the beginning of August.
Intended as a first-hand account of the impact illegal immigration had on the founding of the State of Israel, teens on the first boat from Italy hailed the trip as a great success.
"It’s amazing to come to Israel this way. We’re thinking what they were thinking, like brothers and sisters, but different," said Adam Magnus as the ship approached the shores of Israel.
Magnus, 16, of New Orleans, was heading to Israel to participate in a summer program of the National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth movement of Reform Judaism.
Randy Schapiro, 16, of Buffalo disagreed somewhat.
"It does a disservice to say we’re in their shoes," he said, referring not only to the different historical circumstances but also to the fact that the refugees aboard the ship in 1947 were blocked by the British and sent to France and later to Germany.
"I won’t say that I understand what they went through," Schapiro said. "But now I can appreciate it on a different level."
The weeklong adventure began with a two-day tour of Rome, where the teens learned briefly about the history of Italian Jewry.
Groups visited the Arch of Titus, erected to honor the general who brought the spoils of the First Temple from Jerusalem to the Roman Empire. The teens, singing "Hatikvah," Israel’s national anthem, then re-enacted the triumphant march through the arch by Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors after World War II.
The march was followed by a visit to the Jewish ghetto in Rome to show where some of the refugees originally came from.
Once on the boat, the teens met American volunteers who served on the original Exodus crew and a Polish refugee who came to Israel on another ship in 1947.
"It tears me apart to see this," said Frank Lavine, who worked in the engine room of the original Exodus.
"The ship is not the same and these are kids, but seeing this and the shore of Israel is an indescribable feeling," he said.
As a British scout plane spotted the ship about 20 miles off the coast of Haifa, the "ma’apilim," or illegal immigrants, as the teens were known throughout the journey, posted signs across the deck for the British blockade to see.
"Down with the Brits."
"Live free or die."
"The Promised Land is ours."
"We don’t brake for the British. ‘Nuff Said."
As all 600 teens on the deck of the ship chanted "Eretz Yisrael" and sang "Hatikvah" and "Oseh Shalom," members of USY, the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, danced with a Torah they had brought on board.
"The Exodus did not survive without a fight," the veteran Lavine rallied the teens. "Do not submit to the British."
For the teens, recreating the refugees’ experience was only part of what they gained during their four-day voyage.
"I feel a stronger connection to my religion now that I get to see where everyone is from," said Michelle Suarel, 17, of St. Petersburg, Fla.
"Being surrounded by Jewish people is a very comforting atmosphere. There was already an immediate connection," said Todd Ostomec, 16, of Moraga, Ga.
Janice Brodsky, 15, of Berkeley, Calif., added, "It’s really great when you say `Hi, I’m from San Francisco’ and someone else is from Memphis, Tennessee. Who would have thought there are Jews in Memphis, Tennessee?" she said.
As the ship approached the shores of Palestine, mock British gunboast escorted the Exodus to port.
On seeing the shores of Israel, Jason Gold, 16, of Columbus, Ohio, said he "began to understand the struggle" of the original Exodus.
"It’s like a dream that doesn’t seem real," said Justin Axelroth of Little Rock, Ark., adding, "I’ve waited a long time to see the State of Israel."
"This is a very emotional experience. We’re seeing Israel as they would have seen it," added Samantha Evian, 17, of Philadelphia.
"I had a weird feeling. I never thought I’d get here," she said.
After "escaping" from British prison camps and hiking the beach in Atlit in the footsteps of original ma’apilim, the teens sang "Shehecheyanu," the traditional prayer of thanks, as an emblazoned "Exodus ’95" sign lit the dark sky around the memorial site at Atlit.
"You don’t really know how emotional it is until you see Israel because it’s our land," said Brad Saks, 17, of Cranbury, N.J.
After landing, the groups went their separate ways. Their summer Israel programs had begun.