HAIFA, Israel, July 31 (JTA) — I’m standing on the top deck of a cruise ship as we make our way into the port of Haifa from Cyprus. Looking out on the deck below, I watch 600 young Jews dancing to the sounds of Israeli music as the image of the Bahai Temple perched on the mountainside grows larger and larger. This is the summer program group from the North American Federation of Temple Youth. They’re not only sailing into Haifa but culminating their three-day Exodus, a voyage simulating the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine in 1947. For many of these teenagers, it’s their first time visiting Israel. Several of them mark the occasion by kissing the dusty ground at the Haifa docks. After being in Prague for several days and three days aboard the Exodus, these American Jewish youth are about to embark on a four-week journey through Israel. At least, that’s what they think. Six days later, on July 15, I’m sitting on Shabbat in a youth hostel in the northern city of Beit Shean with staff members from the Habonim Dror youth movement. The staff is working around the clock to rearrange itineraries for hundreds of participants in Israel. Planning is temporarily disturbed by a text message that one staff member receives from her family on the other side of the world. The message informs her that a Katyusha rocket had fallen on a kibbutz believed to be close by, but it proves to be a false report and the staff continues planning programs. Later that same afternoon, as Bnei Akiva relaxes in the same hostel and as the Habonim Dror group concludes a Shabbat afternoon musical performance, several groups from United Synagogue Youth arrive. These groups have been in the area around Tiberias, not in direct line of missile fire, but close enough to necessitate moving southward even on Shabbat. Still smiling and singing but acutely aware of why they’re changing locations, the teens unload their bags from the bus. Some note with delight that the hostel stands a few hundred yards from a kosher McDonald’s. I find myself poolside at a Jerusalem hotel three days later. This time I’m with approximately 90 teens from Pittsburgh and 30 from the Carmiel region, Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2000 sister community. I watch as they participate in a rotation activity that takes them to various sites around Israel. The group is boisterous and playful. The difference between this group and the many others I’ve seen is that this group’s bags are packed, for the final time: They’re on their way back to Pittsburgh two weeks prior to the scheduled end of their journey. Later that evening one of the teens appears on Israeli television from Ben-Gurion Airport as he defiantly claims, “I’ll be back.” He clearly echoes the thoughts of many other teens, most of whom understand but don’t entirely agree with the decision by their parents and the Pittsburgh community to call them home. Later that day, the teens from Carmiel return to their homes in the North; some will spend the night in bomb shelters. They’re comforted by the fact that in a few weeks, these kids from Carmiel will be arriving in Pittsburgh to spend a few weeks there. Eight days after all of this madness began, I sit below the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Just me and more than 4,000 teenagers from North America, Europe, South America and South Africa under the banner of the Israel Experience and the Jewish Agency. Thousands of Jewish teens dance to the beat of drums, singing “Salaam,” Arabic for “peace,” and “Yachad,” Hebrew for “together,” with the Israeli band Gaya. Though the reality of conflict is not too far from anyone’s mind, everyone enjoys these hours of celebration — as Jerusalemites continue to flock to film festivals, malls and restaurants. Now this was the summer that was supposed to be. Today’s best practices of Israel education involve presenting the realities of Israeli life — the good and the not-so-good — instead of a merely one-dimensional, mythical image of an idealized country. Right now, the teenagers on various programs are experiencing the real Israel. They’re able to participate in grand celebrations in Jerusalem and at the same time wish their tour guide good luck as he’s called to reserve duty. In future years, they’ll read history books very differently than most of us — they’ll look upon the events of summer 2006 and say, “We were there, and we know what it was like.” There are more than 7,000 North American youth in Israel at the moment. As was mentioned to me on several occasions, this was supposed to be the summer of all summers: With registrations at their highest for many organizations, with relative peace and stability in Israel and the region, this was the year that the Israel experience dream was to be realized in its full capacity. David Bryfman is the director of Israel education for the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth, the coordinating, umbrella organization for all Jewish youth programs and Israel Experience providers working with Jewish high school youth in North America.
First Person: The summer that was supposed to be