September 23, 2019

Postcards from Israel

In every picture, Melissa Kahn is smiling — whether covered withmud at the Dead Sea, riding a donkey up Mount Canaan or hiking fromthe Mediterranean to Lake Kineret. Kahn, 16, a junior atHarvard-Westlake School, mused recently about the eight weeks shespent in Israel last summer on the Bureau of Jewish Education’s LosAngeles Ulpan program. The pictures are from a scrapbook that she hasleafed through so many times, “I think it will be worn outmomentarily,” she said.


Above, past Israel Experience Program participants gatheredrecently to help recruit teens for future trips. Left, Melissa Kahnin the Galil.

The trip, with more than 120 other young people, was part of theJewish Federation Council-backed Israel Experience Program, which,since 1996, has helped finance trips to Israel for close to 500 youngSouthern Californians, from high school through post-graduate level.(An additional 400 have gone without aid.) There are about 40programs to choose from, including B’nai B’rith Youth, the NationalConference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Young Judea and the NorthAmerican Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).

Kahn, who attended a Jewish day school before coming toHarvard-Westlake, spent three weeks studying Hebrew in a high-levelclass, four days hiking and quite a bit of time traveling throughoutIsrael. After attending prayer services each morning and on Shabbatwhile in Israel, Kahn returned home with some questions about herReform Jewish upbringing. “I think that when I grow up and decide ona temple to join or customs to do on my own, that they’re probablygoing to be a little more religious than I originally intended,”shesaid.

Nathan Angel, 15, a junior at Granada Hills High School, had heardhis Jewish stepfather talk about how going to Israel while in his 20shad changed his life. Angel, who wasn’t born Jewish, was intriguedand decided to go for five weeks as part of the Etgar Camp JCA Sholomprogram. He spent five days at a youth hostel in Jerusalem, traveledto Eilat, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. The Jerusalem hostel was only a fewblocks from the Mahane Yehuda market, which was hit by twin suicidebombs. “It was scary, but I didn’t think it could happen to us,”Angel said. “The army was based right under our hostel.”

An incident that occurred soon after his plane touched down in TelAviv frightened him even more. Angel, who has dark skin, was mistakenfor an Arab and approached by airport security. “They were about totake me away, but a woman in the group saved me,” he said.

Despite such experiences, Angel fell in love with the beauty ofIsrael, especially the natural waterfalls in Eilat and with the DeadSea. He hopes to move to Israel after high school and join the army.

Nicole Spiegel, who also went to Israel with Los Angeles Ulpan,recently spent the day at the Jewish Federation’s offices, along witheight other participants, putting together Israel Experience Programinformation packets to send to local bar/bat mitzvah-age teens.

“I’ve been planning to go to Israel since I was a little girl,”said Spiegel, 17, whose mother, Michelle, is from Tel Aviv. OnKibbutz Gezer, which is located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, theteens helped build an ark, constructed stone walls, a fire pit, amenorah and some stairs. Spiegel also spent time in the Israeli army,training with M-16 guns, doing dozens of push-ups and sit-ups,meeting kids from all over the United States. “We built friendshipsin a week. I still keep in touch with them,” she said.

Following the Mahane Yehuda bombing, the students weren’t allowedto walk around Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street or along the majorthoroughfares in Tel Aviv and Haifa. But, Spiegel said, she actuallyfelt safer in Israel than she does in Los Angeles. “I think everyonedid. Everywhere you go, there is somebody who’s either armed or readyto jump on whatever it is or whomever so that [no one gets] blownup.” One day, a friend happened to leave a bag on a sidewalk inJerusalem. Within minutes, the bomb squad was there. “They were readyto blow it up,” she said. “He had to show his passport and other ID.

Still, for Spiegel, a junior at Montclair Preparatory School inVan Nuys, being in Israel was an amazing experience, which she onlybegan to appreciate fully when she came home. “I want to go back tovisit so badly,” she said. “But not to live. The bombing would freakme out too badly.” The food, on the other hand, was terrific. “I’vebeen telling everyone, just as a joke, to go for the ice cream andthe pizza. It’s the best.”

The Israel Experience, which was launched in January 1996, wasdeveloped as “the next connector” to Judaism for post-bar mitzvahyouth, said IEP Director Jody Moss. The program provides referralinformation, as well as financial assistance, not only for theIsraeli trips themselves but for building awareness before and afterthe excursions.

“A trip to Israel isn’t the answer to keeping someone Jewish,”Moss said. “It’s a great way, but it’s really what comes before andafter that counts.”

For more information about Israel Experience programs, call (213)852-7896.