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The number of participants in this year's Chetz V'Keshet (Arrow and Bow) program, the IDF's five-week summer youth course, is the highest since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000.
The program brings together youths aged 14-18 from Israel and the Diaspora. This year's version, the 25th, began on June 26.
Almost 300 participants will undergo a week of Gadna army training and tour Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, the Golan and Druse villages, officials said. Participants also hike Masada and the Ramon Crater, and pick onions for the poor.
These activities aim "to strengthen self-reliance, Jewish identity, connection to the State of Israel and contact with the Jewish Diaspora," the IDF said in a statement.
The IDF manages Chetz V'Keshet jointly with the Israel Scouts, the Hebrew Scouts Movement, whose officials say it is Israel's largest youth group, as well as worldwide Jewish scouts groups such as the New York-based Friends of Israel Scouts.
Interest was so high this year that "we had to stop and close registration earlier than we thought," said Amir Lis, director of Israel Summer Programs for the Friends of Israel Scouts.
During the second intifada, participation suffered.
In 2001, the program attracted just 30 Western Jews and 10 Israelis, said Yossi Hillel, 47, from the Hebrew Scouts Movement.
But in 2006, about 180 Diaspora youths enrolled, joining about 50 Israelis. This year, about 210 Diaspora youths are participating, along with some 70 Israelis.
"Jewish American teenagers still want to come and see Israel," Lis said.
Participation has not yet reached the 1990's all-time high of about 350 teenagers, Hillel said. But he added that Chetz V'Keshet hoped to top that in 2008. The group is planning for about 300 Western Jewish youth and about 100 Israelis.
The Gadna training distinguishes Chetz V'Keshet from other Israel youth programs, a Hebrew Scouts Movement official said. Counselors are commanders or Education Corps soldiers. They "wear uniforms and carry guns all the time, so the kids see the IDF represented," Lis said.
Participants call counselors by titles like "my commander" rather than by name, said Yaron Grindi, 41, a Chetz V'Keshet counselor for three years.
Grindi described some of the Gadna activities: learning to shoot; hiking while carrying a large water jug, which stands in for a wounded comrade; and being woken up to conquer hills and "fight your enemy" at 3 a.m.
Grindi said the training instills "personal values" such as, "If I have a target, stick with it," that such training extended to "all ways of life."
Some wonder if the program's military emphasis might be problematic.
"The question is whether there's some kind of political agenda," said Yariv Oppenheimer, director-general of Peace Now in Tel Aviv. "But if people want to serve in the IDF, and want to come to Israel for that reason, then I see no problem with that," he said.
Lis described another Friends of Israel Scouts program, Garin Tzabar, which brings Diaspora Jews to the IDF. When soldiers in this program are asked where they heard of it, many cite Chetz V'Keshet, Lis said.
Israeli Chetz V'Keshet participants come from many backgrounds, including the Russian and Ethiopian immigrant communities, a Hebrew Scouts Movement official said. Ninety percent of Chetz V'Keshet's Diaspora Jews are from America, especially from New York and Los Angeles, but European and South American Jews enroll as well, according to Lis.
He added that, while largely secular, the program encouraged participants to "think about how different people observe Shabbat."
Added Grindi: "We explain the Reform, the Conservative - all sides of Judaism."
Shabbat experiences include visits to Jerusalem synagogues and a Chetz V'Keshet Kabbalat Shabbat with a "special Friday dinner," Lis said.
Diaspora participants visit the Israelis' homes for one Shabbat.
"It's not just talking about the Israeli way of life. It's trying to feel it," one Hebrew Scouts Movement official said. "[Diaspora participants] can visit the Western Wall, and the Israelis can explain how they see it."
As for the Israelis, she added: "When they meet kids who are like them but from the Diaspora, it's more real - this relationship between Israel and the Diaspora."
Discussion topics range from how to preserve natural resources, she said, to how Arabs are treated in Israel, "and how we can still live together, and how we should still live together," Grindi said.
Alumni share thoughts on Chetz V'Keshet's Web site, www.chetz-vkeshet.org.il.
"Chetz V'Keshet gave me a perspective on Israel and myself I never would have received," wrote Emily Rose, a Canadian Jew from Chetz V'Keshet's 2004 session. "Teenagers are so used to being taught by people... [lacking] devotion... to what they are teaching... That's what makes [Chetz V'Keshet] different."