A Teenager’s Life-Changing Trip to Israel
By Marissa Palin
SAN DIEGO — Life-changing events are all around us. The good ones help us discover who we are. They teach us how to cry, how to laugh, how to live. They teach us to learn, to look within, to grow. For some of us, good ones happen all the time. For others, they’re harder to come by. But for the lucky ones, they fall right in to your lap.
That was the case with Leila Chitayat. Little did she know that her life-changing event was soon coming when Eyal Dagan, the Israeli CommunityShaliach at the time, approached her at a fundraiser for her mother’s organization, Adopt A Family. (Adopt A Family provides support and friendship to Israel families who are victims of terror. Her mother, Carine Chitayat, along with Iris Pearlman, had arranged for a Sha’ar Hanegev man whom the organization supported to come to the United States to share his experiences.) At the event, Eyal convinced Leila to go to Israel on the UJF Community Teen Trip.
Leila had been to Israel before with her family, but she was too young to really learn from the experience. At the age of 16, she wanted to experience Israel with other teens, to experience it now that she was older and more mature. While she had had opportunities to go on trips with her friends through their schools or camps, none of them really jumped out at her. But then the UJF trip came along. As she put it, “It was a trip was for all the leftovers”—for all the teens who, like her, weren’t affiliated with any particular Jewish youth organization. And it was affordable, flexible and convenient.
Leila spent the 18 days from June 22-July 8, 2009 with the 22 other Jewish teens from San Diego High Schools traveling to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Negev, Eilat, the Kinneret, and Haifa. They slept in a Bedouin tent, they climbed Masada at sunrise, they decorated a bomb shelter in Sha’ar Hanegev, they spent Shabbat on a kibbutz. Her favorite? Jerusalem. Despite the sweltering summer heat. “We saw the Old City, but we got to see the rest of Jerusalem too. We got to see the Western Wall at night. It was so amazing, so much more beautiful than during the day.”
But her most meaningful stop was in Sha’ar Hanegev. There they stayed on a kibbutz, and got to interact with some of the local families from San Diego’s sister community. The group met with the same man who had traveled to the United States a few months earlier to speak at her mother’s fundraiser. He shared his family’s story, and how they had been victims of terror. Leila reflected on the experience, saying “People were always so happy there, always smiling and positive. It kind of made me realize that there are a lot worse problems out there and people deal with them better than we do.”
Was it life-changing? “Definitely. I don’t know if it changed my way of life, but it made me much more aware and open to different people. We had a lot of discussions about really important things, about Judaism and Israel. We discussed what it meant to be Orthodox, and what it meant to be Conservative and Reform.” She met new friends too, friends she never thought she’d have met. “I gained more confidence from the trip. Going in to it I didn’t know very many people, so I got to be whoever I wanted to be.”
While the trip made her feel more connected to the San Diego Jewish community, it really made her feel more connected to Israel. She realizes the importance of getting involved with Israel, and supporting the Homeland. How does she plan on doing that? By supporting her mother’s Adopt A Family organization. “There are a lot of groups that work with the soldiers, but not very many who work with the families who experience the terror.” Her mother’s organization does. Through emails and phone calls, her mother and a few volunteers provide ongoing support to families who have experienced loss, hardship, and fear. Leila hopes to get more involved with the organization, once her school work dies down a bit
San Diego teens will have the opportunity to share Leila’s experiences this summer on the 2010 UJF Community Teen Trip to Israel from July 1-18. The trip is open to Jewish 10th-12th graders of all backgrounds. For more information, visit www.jewishinsandiego.org. Your life-changing event is just around the corner!
Palin is a freelance writer based in San Diego