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Groups of Jewish youths from Europe and North America on summer tour of Israel are helping to boost the morale of many an Israeli as they travel around the central and southern areas of the country.
The energetic bands of mostly teenage Brits, Americans and Canadians on Israel tour with schools and youth movements have brought smiles to the faces of local folk worried that the security situation would cause the visitors to scurry for home.
Ami Cohen, leaning against his tour bus in the parking lot of a Jerusalem hostel last weekend, was delighted to have a group to pick up that morning. A few days previously, the small group of American tourists he had been driving around decided to curtail their visit.
A fleet of buses was parked outside the new Judaean Youth Hostel in Jerusalem's Givat Masuwa neighborhood, where many of the British and North American groups are staying.
Buses assigned to the British Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY), which sends the largest number of British teens to Israel, sported banners proudly proclaiming yet "ANOTHER FZY GROUP IN ISRAEL."
Twelve groups are on the FZY Israel roll call this year.
"We have 470 youngsters here at the moment, and only three sets of parents demanded that their children return home," said Michael Freeman, FZY director in Israel.
"We have the FZY year course commencing in another month, and not one of the 130 registered students has canceled," added Freeman.
The organizations have displayed great creativity in building suitable programs for their groups when most are restricted from going farther north than Kibbutz Nachsholim, and speakers and informal educators have been brought to various venues to meet with the youths.
"A few groups that booked seminars canceled coming to Givat Haviva but asked that Givat Haviva come to them, so our staff members did just that," said Hilit Ben-Zvi, director of the Wadi Ara peace campus's International Department. "This week we have groups here on campus every day, and some are staying overnight. Thank goodness for the British," said Ben-Zvi, as all the sleepover groups are from the UK.
"Our youngsters were due to spend three days with Israeli kids in northern kibbutzim as part of their mifgashim program, which obviously we cannot do; so we are bringing the northern kids to stay for three days in hotels - at the expense of FZY - in the South," said Freeman.
This particular group comprises more than 40 youngsters mainly from the London area, with a small contingent from the northern British Jewish communities.
Their program may have been altered, but it did not change the high expectations of having a great summer experience - meeting and making new friends within the group and some Israeli peers, having fun in the sun and learning about the people, places and history of Israel.
The FZY and its sister organization Young Judaea - the youth wing of Hadassah with more than 400 youngsters now in Israel - also hold joint activities, including a sports day on the beach at Palmachim, where 1,000 youngsters participated.
"There are about 1,300 British teens in Israel at present," said Tal Zmiri, head of the British Desk at Israel Experience Ltd.
Some 500 of them are in Israel on programs organized by Zmiri's company and comprise Reform, Liberal and Conservative synagogue groups, as well as the B'nai B'rith youth organization, Habonim-Dror and the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade.
"The most amazing thing is that the Reform Synagogue's Netzer groups comprising 120 youths arrived after the troubles in the North began and had only four individuals drop out," said Zmiri.
The logistics staff of both organizations are kept on their toes as they reorganize the reorganization of the previous day according to the security situation.
"Even though these kids are basically on holiday, they are very interested and have become involved in the situation of Israelis under fire. For instance, we have a project with the FZY and Young Judaea groups where they are collecting money from among themselves to buy toys for children living in shelters in the North. After only three days, they collected NIS 40,000. Whatever amount the kids collect, the staff and organizations will double," said Freeman, who was under pressure because three of the Israeli madrichim traveling with his groups had been inducted into reserve military duty that morning.
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