“But the group feels almost privileged to be here while this is happening so they can see first-hand what’s really going on. The students could feel that they were shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel.”
The group’s madrich, Elhanan Brown, added that “in a bizarre way” it was good for them to have been in Israel at such a time.
“Four of the kids felt a little hesitant. They said it was weird to be in a place where things like this were happening, things they usually heard on the news. But they could also see how life was going on as normal despite everything – although they understood the necessity of changing the schedule. It was a practical learning experience for them.”
Karmela Blank, 17, a student at the Vilnius ORT Shalom Aleichem School in Lithuania agreed, saying that it was part of an “amazing” three-week stay during which she had been exposed to the full range of issues surrounding the country and its place in Jewish history, culture and current affairs.
“Now I’m definitely in a stronger position to explain the country to people,” Karmela said. “Now I’ve seen the multicultural mix, explored the border issue, the politics of Israel and the Palestinians, and we’ve seen how people react to disaster. I’ve been to Israel before but as a tourist. Now I have met people and investigated issues that a tourist would never have done.”
The summer programme is the culmination of a five-month programme sponsored by the European Jewish Fund, Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, AMHSI Board Chairperson Stephen Muss, Kim and Perry Shwachman of Chicago, and ORT Netherlands supporters.
In that time, the teenagers have stuck to an unrelenting schedule of training, education, distance learning and volunteering which kicked off with an intensive week-long seminar in London in April.
The programme is designed to address the needs of smaller communities in particular, supporting their continuity as well as fostering an appreciation of their symbiotic relationship with the Jewish State.
The knowledge and relationships accumulated in that time have enjoyed an exponential growth in Israel.
Alongside practical leadership skills such as public speaking and events management participants have learned about Jewish and Israeli history, culture, politics and religion with tours and meetings to illustrate and expand on the classes.
“This has been the first time that I’ve actually talked to an Arab-Israeli. I didn’t agree with everything he said but it was really interesting to hear him,” said Aviva Schneider, who lived in Jerusalem before moving to Moscow at the age of 10. “We also talked to Druze people and that was really interesting. I didn’t know anything about them before.”
Mr Brown said: “We’ve not shied away from any topic because these are the things that they will be required to discuss when they become community leaders.”
Participants will start using the tools they have been given as soon as they return home. There they will be encouraged to initiate a project to develop their local Jewish community.
"I've got so much out of it," said Sara Epstein, 16, who with fellow Dubliner Jenna Goodwin plans to develop a fun and educational website for Jewish children.
"The Irish community is so small and the kids I teach at cheder are just not interested," she told London’s Jewish Chronicle. "They want to be like their friends and have communion. I've met so many people who have given advice on how to change that."
Over the past three weeks, the group has hiked through inspirational and beautiful countryside, volunteered at a soup kitchen, visited historic sites and museums from Ben Gurion’s grave to Mount Gilboa and from the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum to Hatzar Kinneret, talked to tent demonstrators and even ridden camels. The hikes were no “walk in the park”; the physical challenge reminded some of the less fit participants of the satisfaction that can be enjoyed in overcoming obstacles.
International media interest in the trip meant they learned how to deal with interviews. Reports have appeared in the French and English language services of Israel Radio, on international Russian television, on news websites, and the Jerusalem Post, as well as the Jewish Chronicle in Britain.
But they have not only learned about Israel, they have also learned from each other.
“I have learned from the examples and experiences of the others on this programme,” said Karmela. “And we have made connections for a lifetime which we hope will help us. We no longer feel isolated, especially those of us from small communities. When I get back home I will have friends in Paris or Holland and other countries who I can count on for advice and support.”
Aviva added: “Everything here has helped me to become a leader. It’s given me strength and also a lot of new ideas which I want to realise in my own community.” It has also been a learning experience for World ORT’s partners at AMHIS, which usually provides summer programmes for more homogeneous groups from Australia and the United States.
“We’ve gained an appreciation of how Jews, particularly in small communities, have strengthened their Jewish identity,” Mr Fischgrund said. “We’re very appreciative of the partnership with World ORT and look forward to next year!” World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer is already looking farther into the future than next year.
“The programme has been such a success that I will propose to Minister Edelstein that it be made permanent,” Mr Singer said. “I look forward also to raising this with the other donors since the partnership we have enjoyed this time has proved to be beneficial to all concerned.”