Youths find life-altering experience in Israel

Congressman sponsors trips with Jewish council to encourage tolerance

August 26, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A dozen Baltimore-area teen-agers sat around a conference table yesterday morning, struggling to describe what many called a life-changing experience: a trip to Israel to meet youths who were just like them, and yet so different.

"I felt that I left something over there, and I have to go back again," said Bevon Waithe, 17, a student at Forest Park High School. "I really can't describe it. But for those of you who have been there before, you know what I'm talking about."

What Waithe is talking about is the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel. In its second year, the initiative sends a dozen high school juniors from Cummings' 7th Congressional District in the city and Baltimore County to Israel for a month during the summer in an attempt to foster understanding between the local African-American and Jewish communities.

The Baltimore youths participated in a joint project with Arab and Israeli teens, toured a kibbutz, lived with Israeli host families, participated in seminars on the culture, history and politics of Israel and toured the country.

Cummings called the youths, who returned from Israel last month, "ambassadors of peace" who are part of the antidote in the fight against bigotry and intolerance.

"I thank you for daring to do something different," Cummings told the youths yesterday at a gathering at the Baltimore Jewish Council, a co-sponsor of the program with Cummings' office.

"Too many people get caught up in their comfort zones," he said. "You will never get ahead if you stay in your comfort zone. Anyone who grows has to be uncomfortable."

The youths described a life very unlike the one they lead in Baltimore. Walking through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on the Sabbath -- which the youths called by its Hebrew name, Shabbat -- they saw residents throw garbage onto the street to prevent the nonobservant from driving.

Although it seemed an extreme measure, the motivation behind it impressed Angel Epps, 16, of Lake Clifton-Eastern High School.

"If that meant preserving their ethics and their morals, then they would go to that extent," she said. "A lot of times, we pick up our religion when it's convenient and put it down when it's not convenient."

Chantal Edwards, 16, a student at Bryn Mawr School, said she was most touched by meeting with Ethiopian Jews, who told their stories of emigrating to Israel.

"They had been through so much," a tearful Edwards said. "It made me stop and look at my own life. I can be a pessimist. I nit-pick. I think I have so many problems.

"I realized they were nothing compared to what other people went through," she said. "Some people lost family members. Some people were robbed. Nothing like that has ever happened to me or my family."

The other participants in the program included Troy Blue of Northern High School; Everette Bonner of Frederick Douglass High School; Eron Bruce of St. Frances Academy; Sarah Carpenter of Catonsville High School; Sean James of Milford Mill Academy; Melissa McPherson-Cox of Towson High School; Alicia Swann of City College; Derrick Warren of St. Frances Academy; and Lisa Worthington of Edmondson-Westside High School.

Pub Date: 8/26/99

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