Young Ambassadors in Israel Prepare for Return Home

There is unanimity on one point only: Two young Irvine women, who are midway through a 10-month subsidized stay in Israel, will return home next June speaking conversational Hebrew.

But little else is certain as both girls’ parents predict their offspring will return changed by the immersion in voluntary social service, language training and civics lessons.

Naomi Neustaedter, 23, and Elaina Deutsch, 24, left the United States for Israel in August along with 39 other recent college graduates from around the country on a program subsidized by United Jewish Communities (UJC), the parent organization of local federations. The program’s goal is creating informal ambassadors for Israel.

"They consider it a failure if the kids make aliyah," said Elaina’s mother, Margie Deutsch-Lash. "They don’t want them to stay."

"The chances the graduates come back to Orange County aren’t that great, but chances are they’ll be involved in Jewish life," said Ira Karem, a Federation representative in Israel.

Bunnie Mauldin, the Jewish Federation of Orange County’s executive director, said both girls demonstrated their seriousness about Judaism by participating locally in Jewish teen programs and serving as camp councilors.

About 100 young adults took advantage of the program annually in the last decade until 2002 when participation dropped to 12. Yet, the three-year long plague of suicide attacks of Israeli targets did not dissuade Neustaedter or Deutsch, their mothers said, because both women have made previous visits. Each contributed $2,700 toward airfare and daily food.

Named Otzma, Hebrew for strength, the UJC program includes an intensive induction in Ashkelon, a southern town and immigration center. Their days are spent learning Hebrew and civic topics like politics and immigration and serving as a volunteer corps painting houses, for example. The remaining six months the group separates and performs community service elsewhere in the country. Host families take in the visitors on weekends and holidays.

"I do know that the UJC has a motive for our project," Neustaedter said. "But I’ve actually been impressed with the education days they’ve been providing for us.

"I’m not so concerned about being manipulated or brainwashed or anything because I feel like I already have a broad perspective of Israeli culture," she said.

After spending a year attending Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Neustaedter graduated last June with a teaching credential from Cal State University Fullerton. "I’ve already had experiences with most types of Israelis including Zionists, seculars, settlers, anti-Zionists, haredis and Arabs," Neustaedter said.

Both girls, along with others in the group, recently volunteered in Sefaram. In the houses of elderly Arab-Israelis, they wiped grime, killed cockroaches and painted walls.

"I learned so much about these people we met and saw a whole other side of Israel that I have never seen before," Deutsch said in an e-mail note to her parents.

She and Neustaedter are to spend the next three months in another southern town, Qiryat Milakhi. Their duties will include English tutoring of high school students preparing for college entrance tests prior to their military service.

Lydia Neustaedter, a native of Tunisia, met her U.S.-born husband, Craig, in Jerusalem.

"Naomi feels so comfortably in Israel," she said. "I’m scared to go, but she’s not scared," said the mother, noting that so far the southern communities have escaped violence.

The mother of five supported the trip for another reason: it temporarily forestalls her daughter’s having to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.

"She takes a year to do what she wanted before her real life begins," Lydia Neustaedter said.

One of her daughter’s goals, though, was visiting a friend who recently immigrated and lives in a West Bank settlement, her mother said. Otzma officials, who forbid the group from using public transportation, refused.

But the group has not escaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely. Part of the program includes field trips, such as participating in November in the UJC’s General Assembly in Jerusalem. Another outing in the city Sept. 9 included lunch at Cafe Hillel just hours before it was bombed.

Shaken, both girls called home even before their parents heard about the tragedy.

"It was very frightening, of course," Neustaedter said. "But unfortunately, I’ve been in Israel during the intifada before and I’ve had very similar experiences. The day after the bombings, I stayed home from ulpan [an intensive Hebrew course] because I wanted some time to myself and I knew everyone was just going to talk about it more and more. The truth is it frightens me the more we talk about it. I guess it’s easier just not to listen to the news and live your daily life here. That’s the easiest way for me."

Deutsch-Lash, whose daughter, Elaina, graduated last December from San Francisco State University after majoring in art, said, "I like to listen first and not tell kids what to do from a safety and protective point of view."

"As much as I’m concerned about her well-being, I’m also jealous. I’m proud of her that she feels secure enough to do this."

"I try not to think about the safety issues," said Deutsch-Lash. "If she wasn’t sounding good on the phone, I’d have more concerns. But she sounds like she’s experiencing things very positively."

Knowing other young adults who participated in previous year’s trips, Deutsch-Lash feels confidant her daughter’s experience will prove both life-changing as well as cement her Jewish identity.

"It’s a practical education learning about what happens in Israeli life and bringing it back to North America," she said.