Teens organize own trip to Israel

NEW YORK, May 16 (JTA) – Even though she’s only a teen-ager, Ariella Guttmann is no novice when it comes to planning Jewish events.

At 16, she organized a party for 250 Jewish teens in her native Cincinnati – and organized a pro-Israel rally for teen-agers there last fall.

But along with a friend, Justin, Guttmann recently took on her biggest task yet: organizing a teen solidarity trip to Israel.

“We felt we needed to do something because we are the future generation. We want to show the world just how much our Judaism means to each and every one of us,” said Guttmann, 18.

The trip was conceived after she and Justin were not allowed on an adult solidarity trip sponsored by the United Jewish Communities.

The idea came as enrollment in most teen summer programs to Israel has declined sharply this year, most likely because of nearly eight months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Their efforts came to fruition late last month, when Guttman, Justin and 13 other Cincinnati-area teens traveled to Israel for a solidarity mission.

Making the weeklong trip happen took a lot of work.

Guttman and Justin, who asked that his last name not be used, placed ads in local Jewish newspapers and succeeded in getting two anonymous, private donations. They also convinced Cincinnati’s federation to pitch in.

In their discussions with federation officials, Justin said, he and Guttmann emphasized that Israel needs more than just money.

“Support and solidarity are more important,” he said.

Barbara Miller, who recruits teens for Israel trips for the local federation and served as one of the teen group’s three chaperones, helped the pair convince the federation to subsidize the trip.

“It’s really important to go now,” said Justin, also 18. “I know that many people feel abandoned in Israel with flights, business and programs being canceled.”

The group visited Haifa University and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, and met with an official from the Haifa mayor’s office.

The trip’s itinerary was organized by the Alexander Muss High School outside Tel Aviv.

The group learned about Israeli history and debated Judaism with Israeli teens who accompanied them during part of their visit.

At all times, a guard with a machine gun shadowed them – but many of the group’s participants said they never felt afraid.

Israel has “the best security. The army is all over. I really felt like a princess,” Guttmann said. “It’s really sad” that “people only have the violence they see on the news in their minds.

“It does not look like that at all,” she added.

With race riots roiling Cincinnati while the group was abroad, the Israelis joked that it was safer for the group to be in Israel than in their hometown, said Hindy Poupko, 17.

Despite their bravery, there was one major incident.

“What affected me the most was the bomb in Kfar Saba,” said Poupko, referring to the April 22 attack that killed a doctor and injured 50.

When you “look around, everything seems calm and safe. But I felt so nervous for our Israeli friends, who take a bus every day to Kfar Saba to hang out,” she said. My plan “to get together with them that night was canceled because the bus transportation was canceled” after the bombing.

Worries over the bombings prevented the trip from being larger, Justin said. Several teen-agers who wanted to go on the trip were forbidden by their parents.

Security concerns have caused a severe decline in tourism to Israel since violence broke out in late September, and the Ohio teens heard firsthand about the effects of this drop.

Miller said people in businesses that cater to tourists – from craft shop employees to those running falafel stands – were happy to see the group.

“They gave” us “big discounts. Many stores are liquidating,” she said. “It’s so sad. Tourism was hit hard.”

Shop owners weren’t the only Israelis happy about the teens’ visit.

Matti, one of the Israeli teen-agers they met, said, “American Jews are our friends. Friends share in good times. But when friends are there for you in bad times, they are great friends.”

For Justin, it was a no-brainer.

“If the Jews in the Diaspora were in trouble,” the Israelis would be there for them, he said. So “why shouldn’t we be there” for the Israelis?

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