College age Americans and Hungarians get a taste of the average Israeli's day-to-day life.
By ALEX SORIN
The Western Galilee Division of the Partnership 2000 program, run by the Jewish Agency in cooperation with the United Jewish Communities, gives college age Americans and Hungarians a taste of the average Israeli's day-to-day life, and a perspective very different from the traditional Zionist narrative offered by other exchange trips such as Taglit-birthright.
The Jewish students from 16 American communities and Budapest volunteer for four weeks at summer camps in the morning, and one evening a week they work with underprivileged or troubled youth, in an effort to forge a deeper connection to the Israeli people and the Jewish state.
The American students volunteer once a week at Hafuch Al Hafuch (topsy-turvy in English), a center in Acre that opens its doors to Arab and Jewish teenagers. The group takes part in discussions on subjects such as sexuality, school and army service, in an effort to point the teenagers' lives in a positive direction.
For some of the volunteers, the tangible Hafuch experience has opened their eyes to aspects of Israeli society that were unfamiliar to them. The students were surprised by the high level of efforts made in Israel to steer teenagers away from trouble, compared to the lack of programs for Jewish youth in America.
"Hafuch shows that this is a real place with real problems," 21-year-old George Washington University student Laura Raden said on Tuesday.
"It seems that there's a lot more concern here as opposed to the States to make programs to occupy teenagers so they don't get in trouble. Living in Israel and doing the volunteer work makes me feel a lot less like a tourist, and it's a nice change."
A few of the Hungarian volunteers conveyed disappointment at the "pampered" and "one-sided" Zionist ideology offered by the Taglit-birthright program and were hesitant at first to take part in another organized Israel trip.
"In a way Taglit is a very ideological trip, and Hungarian youth in general get very suspicious about this, and although I had some problems with Taglit, it did spur my interest in Israel, which led to going on this trip," said 21-year old Benedew Wurdi.
The Hungarian students head to Tel Aviv on Friday, where they will begin their volunteer work with underprivileged youth, and will be exposed to the diversity and unique aspects of the city that many of the volunteers find attractive.
"It will be a different experience working with the underprivileged Israeli youth as opposed to the kids at the summer camp," said Wurdi.
"Volunteering in Tel Aviv, we are offered an alternative to the traditional Zionist narrative, and it's important to see this side of Israel. It gives us the opportunity to talk to people in Tel Aviv, which is full of variety, including [in] political opinions."
Local families host the volunteers on the weekends, which exposes them to the realities of Israeli life and the responsibility that Israeli youth are given at a young age.
"We saw one of the daughters of the family we were staying with packing for the army for the first time, and it was strange because it seemed so regular to her and the family," said American student Lauren Raden.
"She's the youngest of the family's three children, so they've gone through this before, and it has become very normal for them. When we think of people going to the army or leaving home in America, it's thought of as this emotional event, but we see that in Israel it's just a way of life."
Many of the volunteers are intrigued at the maturity and self-awareness of the Israeli youth that comes out of the difficult realities of life here, including army service.
"It's very interesting to see very young but self-confident Jewish people here," said 28-year old Suzie Keszthelyi of Hungary.
"Growing up in Hungary, I, like most of the Hungarian Jewish youth, don't have much of a Jewish identity, and this program has helped me strengthen my Jewish identity."
After the weeks of volunteer work, the students seemed to have a deeper and more realistic connection with Israeli society and the nation itself.
"I definitely have a closer connection now, because I'm not just visiting the statues, I'm getting to know the opinions of the people who live here," said Oliver Ma'tsik of Budapest. "It's a completely active, not passive experience."
The American students, who are nearing the end of their trip, expressed a similar opinion.
"To really experience a culture anywhere, you have to live it," said Sarah Bleicher, a 19-year-old American volunteer from Boston College.
"I like the volunteering aspect of the trip a lot and I feel closer to the culture, community, and people here," she said.
var cont = `Sign up for The Jerusalem Post Premium Plus for just $5
Upgrade your reading experience with an ad-free environment and exclusive content