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Ventura County

Camp Offers Israeli Teens a Break From Strife at Home

July 22, 2002|KARIN GRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The teens at Camp Alonim in the hills just south of Simi Valley are learning to scale a climbing wall, produce videos and dance to Israeli folk music.

But many of them gleaned a more important lesson while watching and listening to 12 youths from Tel Aviv, where suicide bombings and sniper attacks continue to be a part of daily life.

They found that their peers can experience terror and suffering but still maintain their strength and hope.

"They're really, really strong people," said Annie Lascoe, a sophomore at Calabasas High School. "They just persevere despite all the horrible things that are happening to their people."

The Israelis are attending the camp at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish educational facility, through a new program organized by the institute and the Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

The institute and federation granted scholarships to cover most of the $38,000 cost of the camp for the 12 Israelis, in hopes that the experience would break through the isolation they may feel and foster connections between the Israeli and American youths, said federation spokeswoman Tzivia Schwartz Getzug.

The Israeli campers, who paid $200 each, were selected for their scholastic achievement, knowledge of English and leadership potential. The program, called Junior Counselors-In-Training, is open to high school sophomores.

The Tel Aviv teens said they have learned to live with the violence between Israelis and Palestinians raging in their homeland.

They still go to school, work at part-time jobs and meet their friends at malls and restaurants.

But they remain constantly on alert. They steer clear of crowds in the street and keep an eye out for suspicious-looking people. They stay home for a few days after attacks. And when they hear of an explosion or shooting, they immediately begin dialing the phone numbers of friends and family members.

When 15-year-old Igor Belfor heard about a suicide bombing at a bus station near school six months ago, he tried for two hours to reach a friend before finding out he was alive.

Gil Amir, 16, said he experienced the same panic when a neighborhood coffee shop was bombed a few months ago and he couldn't reach one of his pals.

"It can happen to anyone," said Igor, who went to school with seven of the 21 people killed last summer in a suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv disco. "It's scary, but I try not to be scared. I try not to think about it all the time."

The three-week camp session, which continues through July 28, provides 300 Jewish youths ages 8 to 15 with activities ranging from horseback riding to drama to traditional Shabbat services and dinners.

During a special forum and in informal evening gatherings, the American teens asked many questions of the Israelis, from whether they are afraid to how they feel about their mandatory military service.

"It kind of opened my mind to what [Israel is] like," said David Grossman, a Moorpark High School sophomore. "I was really reluctant to even go over there, but it seems like it is just home to them. I am kind of curious to go over there now."

While one-on-one conversations between the American and Israeli teens sometimes turn to current events, they often keep to more universal teen topics such as music and the opposite sex, Igor said.

"The whole camp is like a small city," said Gil. "It's a community, and I feel a part of it."

Many of the Israeli teens burst into tears Tuesday morning after Avi Omry, an adult coordinator who accompanied them from Tel Aviv, announced that Palestinian gunmen dressed as Israeli soldiers had just killed eight people during an ambush of an armored bus from a Tel Aviv suburb as it neared the entrance to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. American campers hugged their Israeli friends.

"I feel kind of bad I am not there, not part of the pain there," said 15-year-old Stephanie Moran of Tel Aviv later that morning.

A few of the Israeli girls were still in tears when they arrived for their art class later that day. Teacher Lidia Shaddow asked them to hold hands and pray and then encouraged the Israeli girls to express their feelings in pictures and words.

One girl sketched a picture of an hourglass and wrote, "As time goes, I run out of hope." Another drew clouds in a black sky and wrote in Hebrew, "Life is the greatest gift that God has given us and no one has the right to take it from us."

"This is a great healing place for them," Shaddow said.

The Israelis spent three days with the families of American campers before the session began and will return to their host homes for four days at the end. From there, some will visit relatives in the United States, while others will go straight home.

Although the camp provided a respite from the terror in Tel Aviv, the Israeli teens are looking forward to going back.

"I have something to come back to," Gil said. "I have home."

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