November 20, 2019

Heroes’ Return

Add Shalhevet 10th-grader Sara Smith to the list of Israeli sharpshooters.

She pulled the trigger of her M-16 semi-automatic rifle and scored a bull’s-eye in "boot camp," part of a three-week educational adventure in Israel.

"I never want to see a gun again," confessed Smith, who said she was a little bit scared at first.

Guns were not scarce during the three-week venture.

"Everyone has a gun, and that made me feel safe," said classmate Max Rabin.

Smith and Rabin were part of an 11-member group from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles that had a student exchange with counterparts from Tel Aviv’s Zeitlin High School.

Security was tight. The group had one armed security escort, in addition to the soldiers and policemen who normally patrol the country. "I felt a little scared before I left, but in Israel I was not scared," said Rabin, despite a bomb scare one night near a Burger Ranch restaurant.

The group and their parents breathed a sigh of relief when they came back to Los Angeles March 21. They brought with them strong friendships from their Israeli counterparts, who visited here just before Chanukah as part of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, in conjunction with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

"This was an emotional and spiritual experience even more than I anticipated," said Paul Nisenbaum, Shalhevet assistant principal. "They really are heroes, even if they don’t realize it now. They took the risk. People that extend themselves beyond their comfortable neighborhoods are doing something heroic. Judaism would not have survived without heroes."

The students stayed in each other’s homes, unlike last year, when the Shalhevet class stayed at yeshivot and ulpanot dorms. The constant contact with Israeli peers gave the students an education that no formal classroom could match. "We were living Israel," said 10th-grader Daniel Korda.

That is not to say everybody turned into a pioneering sabra. "Why go back? Kosher Burger King! What else could you want, " said Ben Pellin, half jokingly while pointing to a sign directing people to a synagogue inside an American-style shopping mall outside Jerusalem.

There is a big difference between seeing Israel with a tour guide and touring it with Israelis, who not only are peers but also are friends from their winter visit here, explained Tal Amitai, an Israeli fulfilling her national service at Shalhevet and an escort for the group.

Shalhevet and Zeitlin teamed up because of the similarities between the two schools. Zeitlin, which attracts 1,200 students, is one of the rare Israeli religious high schools where both girls and boys study, although in separate classes. Zeitlin’s graduates include Jacob Frankel, former Bank of Israel chief.

Zeitlin sent 18 students to Shalhevet and another eight to Hillel Academy in December. "We feel we did a mission," said Sharon Lerman of Zeitlin. "We want to build a link."

Rafi Goren, the Zeitlin teacher who came with the group to Los Angeles, added, "The program is based on a foundation in both places, and everyone has to learn the other’s culture."

The differences are glaring. Zeitlin students loved the B’nai Akiva Shabbaton in Los Angeles, where there were discussions on anti-Semitism in the United States. But equally memorable were trips to Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Universal Studios. The Shalhevet group gave high marks to the four-day army training camp, Yad Vashem and observing Shabbat in Jerusalem.

"There is no holiness in America," said Gil David of Zeitlin. His classmate Lerman added, "The people are good, but the source of their lives is empty. We have a mission to show them Israel."

Zeitlin students toured with their California friends, helping them understand Israel from a native’s viewpoint.

The Shalhevet group had a rare experience of praying as close as allowed to the site of the original Temple during a tour in the Old City. Officials usually do not let anyone pray there because of political sensitivities.

Shalhevet left a lasting impression on their armed escort, Shimon. Saturday night in Jerusalem, after a long walk and activities, the group entered a hostel, where they met a man who was confined to a wheelchair.

The man needed their help and despite their 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning, several of the students helped him for an hour, getting him upstairs and attending to his needs. "He wanted help. It was a mitzvah," explained Adam Simon.

The 10th-graders are back, but the program is far from over. Both schools plan to raise money for Magen David Adom, study "Mishna" together and create a joint Web site.

The Shalhevet exchange program with Zeitlin is just one of several projects in Los Angeles. Pressman and Hillel Academy plan to send delegates in May, during Israel Independence Day.