They didn't know what they were in for.
Eleven Israeli teens spent months preparing for a trip to the United States for a student mifgash (encounter) with Jewish American students. Most of the 17-year-olds hadn't been to the States, let alone met Jews of the same age from another country, but they jumped at the opportunity.
The group, called Kol Yisrael (The Voice of Israel), flew into Chicago in mid-July to meet with SITs (staff in training) at JCC Camp Chi in Lake Delton, Wisconsin. The SITs who participated in the mifgash are scheduled to go to on a trip to Israel in next summer 2013, where they will be accompanied by the members of Kol Yisrael.
The Israelis hailed from Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir, cities located in the northern Negev desert. JUF's relationship with the Partnership Together Program (P2G) connects Chicagoans to the region in a variety of ways, including volunteer projects and people-to-people programs. One example of the volunteer programs is Kefiada, an English-speaking summer camp in the P2G region staffed by college students from Chicago each summer.
2012 marks the first year for the teen mifgash at Camp Chi. One teen remembers arriving at the campsite. "Two of the SITs were girls I met on a Partnership trip to Chicago three years ago," she said. "I had no idea they were going to be there. But when we arrived at Camp Chi, we immediately recognized each other."
Connections were also made during peer-led discussion sessions. The Israeli teens had been meeting on a weekly basis starting in February, joining one another in talks on Jewish identity and Israeli culture and society. Camp Chi SITs convened five days a week during the second session of summer camp to have conversations on the same topics. Upon arriving at the Wisconsin campgrounds, the two parties were fully prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Israelis were impressed with their counterparts' ability to empathize with them on issues related to Israel. "Even though they don't live in our country, the American teens could guess how we feel," one teen said, "and they came up with things we'd never thought of."
Along with stimulating discussion, the schedule included mitzvah projects, swimming, sports, and singing songs, both in Hebrew and English. An especially memorable activity for the Israelis was analyzing the lyrics to "The Sticker Song," a radio staple with verses compiled from bumper sticker slogans of political and social nature by Israeli hip-hop outfit Hadag Nachash. After discussing the song content, they picked dilemmas from five slogans that had to do with terrorist activity. The group played out the incidents as real-life situations, and their American peers had 15 seconds to react to each scenario.
In their home country, the Israelis are subjected to similar life-threatening situations on a frequent basis and have to respond quickly. The exercise allowed the SITs to experience firsthand the difficulties confronting Israelis today.
"The face-to-face connection gives the American teens direct exposure to the culture of the country," said Brooke Mandrea, senior program associate of Overseas Projects at JUF. "Until they spend time with their Israeli peers, they can't have ownership of topics like Jewish identity and issues facing Israel."
Most of all, the trip was just plain fun.
As part of their stay in the States, the teens participated in exciting activities in Chicago, including a double decker bus tour, exploring Navy Pier, a kosher food scavenger hunt, and a Skydeck visit. They ate Dunkin Donuts delicacies for the first time and posed for pictures in front of a yellow school bus, a vehicle not found on Israeli streets.
Volunteering at the JUF Uptown Cafe proved to be Windy City highlight for the teens. By preparing, serving, and enjoying a kosher dinner with people in need, they contributed to JUF's helping hand for local Jewish causes.
"The Jewish community [in the U.S.] is very united," said one Israeli teen. "If Israelis and Americans learn about these partnership programs, the Jewish communities of both countries will be even more connected to each other than they are now."
Partnership Together (P2G) is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that links communities in the Diaspora with communities in Israel, primarily in the Negev and Galilee. JUF's P2G Region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir is located in Israel's northern Negev. Through JUF's annual campaign $1 million of funding is allocated in support of projects that promote the region's development, improve the quality of life for its residents, and connects its residents with Chicago Jewry through "people-to-people" programs. For more information, visit www.juf.org/p2g.