Israel's destiny taps foreign teens Visitors: Israeli programs for young people from overseas build a future source of emotional and political support for the state.

August 07, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT ME'IR, Israel -- Scott Werthamer and Harvis Kramer kayaked the Jordan River. They visited the grave of slain Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine.

But the place these Pikesville boys may remember most from their summer in Israel is a forest about an hour's drive from Jerusalem.

There, beside a boulder, stand the two fir trees they planted.

"We both made a pact, that in 20 years we'd come back and find our trees," said Harvis, a 16-year-old wrestler from Pikesville Senior High School.

The tree planting in Israel thus accomplished its goal -- to link the future of the Maryland teens to the land of Israel.

Even before the nation was founded, Zionist organizations brought young Jews here to forge a bond with the Jewish state -- and if the methods have changed, the goal has not.

Young men and women today can experience Israel by coming here to play soccer, to learn Torah or to shoot a video journal.

They can get their first glimpse of Israel from the deck of a cabin cruiser dubbed the "Exodus."

MA The adventurous can train at an army camp. The socially con-

scious can volunteer at an Arab-Israeli day camp.

Talented young scientists can conduct experiments at Israel's Weizmann Institute.

Some 9,000 teen-agers from abroad experience Israel each summer, about 6,000 of them Americans -- though the number of Americans has been declining since 1987, coinciding with a rise in Arab-Israeli violence.

"The first thing we want to achieve is when they see us, they will ever after have a bit of us in them and understand us better," said Rabbi Paul Freedman, who works with the English-language youth programs sponsored by the Jewish Agency.

Israeli leaders recognize the importance of maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, in part as a future source of emotional and political support for the state.

In a speech to American Jewish leaders last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a "spiritual and physical airlift of young Jews to visit Israel."

Program organizers and Jewish leaders also tout the youth tours as a way to stem the high rate of intermarriage among American Jews. Studies have found fewer intermarriages among Jewish youth who experience Israel for a summer or in yearlong programs.

"There's no question these trips do something. But they are never going to work as a stand-alone over time," said David Harman, director general of the Jewish Agency that oversees the programs in Israel.

"Jewish life in its intensity is far greater than it was years ago," said Dr. David Clayman, representative of the American Jewish Congress in Israel. "As you move away from the center, it grows weaker and weaker. You have hemorrhaging at the edges of the circle.

"Being Jewish in America pales in comparison to Christianity. Christianity is part of American culture. Suddenly young people come here and they see being Jewish as something much more massive than the synagogue."

Nearly all of the monthlong programs share a few key features: tours of holy sites in Jerusalem, visits with Israeli families, overnight stays at a kibbutz.

All of them are part of the effort to strengthen Jewish identity, preserve Israel's place in the Diaspora and increase support for the Jewish state.

Scott Werthamer and Harvis Kramer, the Pikesville teens, had a foundation on which to build -- one of them with a father born in Israel, the other with sisters who have traveled here, bar mitzvah studies in the past for both of them. But even before the trip ended, the teen-agers realized their views of themselves and their heritage had changed.

When the teen-agers visited the grave of Prime Minister Rabin, a sadness overcame the group's Israeli counselors. The Israelis tried to explain that to their American charges: They they felt as if a best friend had died.

At another time in Kramer's young life, the teen-ager might not have given a second thought to his counselor's tears. But he wanted to understand. "I was trying to relate that to my life," he said.

Werthamer's trip to the Western Wall stayed with him for several reasons.

"The first thing that hits you is you have to walk through a metal detector to pray," said the 15-year-old. As he approached the wall, a rabbi offered him the opportunity to wear "tefilin," small black boxes containing Bible passages and that are strapped to the head and left arm during prayer. The teen-ager accepted.

"I didn't think that was something I would have done," he said.

Before the trip, Jason Weisbrot probably couldn't place the Golan Heights on the map. Now, the 16-year-old professes an allegiance to the mountainous plain in northeastern Israel that Syria wants returned in exchange for peace.

The teen-agers on his tour debated the pros and cons of land-for-peace during an evening of role playing led by the tour's counselors. Some played Syrians, some Israelis.

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