St. Louisans get taste of Israel during war

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Teens visiting Israel often describe it as an experience of a lifetime. This summer students visiting Israel developed a more intimate understanding of what it is like to live in the country in recent times. The Israel Experience Center at the Central Agency for Jewish Education was aware of close to 50 St. Louis teens participating in summer programs in Israel when the Israeli soldiers were kidnapped.

Most of the students were aware of the fighting through information shared by their group leaders, watching the news and communications with family and friends. Some parents contacted sponsoring organizations and gave their children the option to come home early. While all the programs had to change their itineraries due to the fighting, overall the students generally said they felt safe.

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“To the best of my knowledge none of our St. Louis students came home early due to the fighting,” Karen Rader, Director of the Israel Experience Center at the Central Agency for Jewish Education said. “We called every St. Louis family we knew had children in Israel to check how things were going and be a local resource. Some people just needed to talk through what was going on and were grateful to touch base and have their questions answered.”

Caroline Keane had nothing but high praise for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization’s Israel program and the safe environment it provided for her daughter Millie.

“Security was there all the time,” Keane said. “They did an absolutely incredible job and provided the most wonderful experiences. Millie got a true experience of being part of Israel.”

Kim Weitkamp, a junior at Fort Zumwalt South High School and the daughter of Sandy and Todd Weitkamp, also participated in the BBYO program. Their group was supposed to spend a week in the Golan Heights but had to leave early because of the fighting. Kim said they watched the BBC and CNN to keep up with the news of the fighting. Their plans to visit Tel Aviv were cancelled after the government issued warnings. However she was able to see the city when she went to visit relatives on one of her free weekends.

The campus of the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education is in Hod Ha’Sharon which is just outside Tel Aviv. Rebecca Goldstein, the daughter of Marla and Gary Goldstein and Daniel Kraus, the son of Connie and Elden Kraus participated in their program this summer.

“I personally wasn’t scared,” Daniel, a junior at Marquette High School, said. “The program would have made different arrangements if we were in danger. I had complete confidence in the Israeli army and their intelligence.”

Rebecca said some of the students started to feel afraid when the government issued warnings for Tel Aviv. Their group left the city early for the desert because the organizers knew it “would make the parents feel better.”

“We were concerned at first because our teacher and our counselor were told they may be called up to serve in the army and had to be ready to go,” Rebecca, a senior at Parkway North High School, said. “We trusted them and they kept us up-to-date every day. They were living it every day. So if they said we’d be okay, we knew we would be okay.”

“I was not concerned,” Michael Naclerio said. “I felt pretty safe, I gauged the responses of our tour leaders who were fairly nonchalant. I compare it to tornadoes in St. Louis. We just do what we have to do when they come around, and then go on. That’s what they do in Israel. Life goes on.”

The John Burroughs junior is the son of Judy and Pete Naclerio. He participated in the Jewish Community Center Maccabi Israel program. His group was in Tiberias when rockets started hitting the city and they had to move south.

Samantha Sabol participated in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s Jerusalem Journey. She is the daughter of Miriam and Leslie Sabol and is a junior at Parkway North High School. Her group was supposed to be in Tsfat for their second Shabbat but had to change plans because of the fighting.

“I was nervous,” Samantha said. “In the United States we are not really confronted by war at home. Israel is surrounded by it constantly. The Israelis were afraid because it was a new war, and whenever there is war people are hurt. But they are almost numb to fighting. When we saw them ease to the situation, our anxiety lessened.”

Participants in the United Synagogue Youth Pilgrimage program started with a week in Spain and then five weeks in Israel. The group traveled all over the country. The bombing started after they left Haifa said Ben Goldstein, son of Nikki and Paul Goldstein.

“We were in Tiberius when the bombs went off and we could hear them,” Ben, a junior at Parkway Central High School said. “We knew everything that was going on and tensions were high. I didn’t think we were in any danger. They got us out of there and moved us to safety very quickly.”

Despite the changes in their itineraries, and sometimes because of the changes, the students all had unique memories to share about their summer in Israel. They were able to learn their history in the country which is a living textbook. They saw the present realities for its residents with all its beauty and pain. And they were inspired.

“The most extraordinary experience was when we got to volunteer to assist residents in Haifa who were displaced by the bombings,” Ben said. “There were tent cities set up on the beaches near Tel Aviv. We organized and played games with the kids like soccer and some of the girls did face painting and we helped distribute food.”

“I went to a concert in Jerusalem for Jewish teenagers visiting Israel,” Rebecca said. “There were more than 4,000 Jewish teens from the UK, Australia, Russia, France, South Africa, America and so many other places. All those languages, all those countries, all those people and we were singing the same song. It felt so good to be part of all that. It was a pretty cool experience.”

When Kim’s group was climbing a mountain in Eilat the tour guide made them all stop before they reached the peak. Then he had them approach it as a line so they would all see the scene at the same time: a breathtaking view of the Red Sea. She also recalled being able to be at the Western Wall for two Shabbats.

“It was incredible to see everyone celebrating Shabbat in their own fashion,” Kim said. “There were tour groups arriving and the yeshiva for Americans always came down singing and dancing. The excitement is contagious.”

“I watched the sunset in Israel, which is one of my dreams come true,” Daniel said. “Being in Israel was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I can’t wait to go back, because I will go back.”