She was nervous. O.K., she was very, very nervous.
When Jennifer Ehlers signed up for the MIFGASH Program, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Partnership 2000 program, one that allows area teens to participate in an exchange program with their counterparts in Philadelphia's Israeli sister region, she knew no one. At 15, she was also the youngest of the travelers to the Netivot-Sedot Negev region last summer.
"And all my nervousness was absolutely unwarranted," said the Maple Glen teen who returned from the exchange brimming with enthusiasm, and ready to greet her Israeli "sister" a few weeks later. "It was the most wonderful, amazing experience. I loved it!"
The Upper Dublin High School student had the typical reaction of the fortunate teens who have participated in Mifgash, or "Encounter" in Hebrew, having lived and experienced an adventure unlike any other. In this case, the encounter was entirely positive, fulfilling and meaningful.
"I had gone to Israel with my confirmation class, and I couldn't wait to go back," said Jennifer. "When the brochure for Mifgash came in the mail, I read it about a million times! I knew that this was the way I wanted to go back to Israel."
The MIFGASH program, now known as MIFGASH: Ambassadors for Partnership, is overseen by the Community Youth Initiative of the Jewish Community Centers of Philadelphia, with Lisa Sandler, the director of the Community Youth Initiative, at the helm.
"The beautiful thing is that we participate in this program in the broadest and most meaningful way," said Sandler, who noted that the sister city component is what adds greater meaning to the exchange experience. "Our youngsters come back with a keener sense of the region from having literally lived it. Mifgash fosters not just the tremendous growth that comes from a travel exchange, but also the positive relationship and identity with Federation's Partnership 2000 community, Netivot-Sedot Negev."
To qualify, the 12 local participants must be high school age, entering their junior or senior year, and willing to go through a screening and application process. Their Israeli counterparts do the same, and are also required to have significant mastery of English.
Once in Israel, the students live with their Israeli counterpart and his/her host family in the sister region. The days and nights are filled with planned activities, from travel to historic sites to visits to soldiers in Israeli hospitals, camping, Shabbat visits and, most of all, interaction with Israeli teens.
Jennifer vividly recalls a picnic at which the Philadelphia-area and Israeli youngsters broke the ice by responding to general questions. One involved describing the future as they imagined it. "We all spoke of college," she recalled. "They all spoke of the army."
Another striking difference from Jennifer: "The American kids all mentioned seeking a Jewish partner and the Israeli kids didn't even think of that because for them, Jewishness is so natural. It's all they know, while we have to seek it out. That kind of insight," said Jennifer, "is how we got to know one another's lives and ideas."
The home component is also critical and deeply meaningful.
"We match students and families the way roommates are typically matched, with attention to interests, religious practices, and even pets," said Sandler. "A lot of care and attention is given on both sides."
The cost of the program for participants is $1,000, which includes round-trip airfare and almost all meals. Subsidies come from Federation allocations.
For Judah Gross, Israel was almost a second home. His family maintains an apartment there, and Judah has spent considerable time in the place he knows well. But not well enough, as it turned out.
"I realized, after I participated in MIFGASH, that I had seen Israel only through the lens of my relatives. The trip last summer gave me a totally new perspective — I had never really been in an Israeli household of non-relatives before."
Judah, 17, a senior at Abington High School, and president of its poetry club and a member of its debating team, found himself inspired by the new interactions he experienced, and fascinated by the incredible similarities between his host family's household and his own. "I guess one obvious similarity was the amount of food shoved upon us — it was superhuman!" he quipped.
But on the serious side, Judah Gross was struck by the differing political views he was exposed to, the rich experience of learning the history and ways of life of Philadelphia's sister region, and the incredible gift of meeting 12 Israeli students who have become friends. "We're very close through the Internet," said Judah, "and I feel that my host family will continue to be a part of my life."
Both Judah and Jennifer, who in turn hosted their Israeli hosts in Philadelphia later last summer, introducing them to everything from local museums to the Phillies, acknowledge that there are challenges in any exchange program. But even with some language barriers and cultural differences, neither would have changed a thing about their amazing summer of 2006.
And that's music to the ears of Adi Inbar, Youth Shlicha at Federation.
"I think we all know now from ongoing research that Israeli and American teens really know very little about one another," said Inbar. "We are starting to recognize that the best experience is always a personal one."
Inbar also believes that members of each constituency — the Israeli and the American students — become more aware not just of one another's lives, but of the political and social pulls that have an impact. "It's the feeling side that fortifies the learning side, and in the end, feelings are likely to last the longest."
Those feelings really surfaced when the American students were preparing to leave Israel just as the war with Lebanon was erupting. Rather than being anxious to get home, suggested Judah Gross, the impending war made it so hard to leave.
"We all felt that it was such a strange and inopportune time to be leaving. We had become so immersed in Israel, and it was so much a part of us. Leaving was the hardest thing."
But returning will be the great reward. And for both Judah and Jennifer, that return will come in the summer of 2007.
Judah, who is currently interning for the MIFGASH program through the Community Youth Initiative of the Jewish Community Centers of Philadelphia, and helping to fine-tune next summer's trips, will be part of USY's NATIV Program in Israel next year, combining study at Hebrew University with work on a Kibbutz very close to Netivot. "So I'll be able to continue my relationship with the place — and the people," he said.
Jennifer is participating in the Satell Teen Fellowship For Leadership and Social Activism this year, which includes a trip to Israel. She will spend a Shabbat in the region, where she will be able to re-unite with her Israeli friends. "I don't know yet what my future will be, but I know that Israel will be part of it," said Jennifer. "Last summer's MIFGASH trip definitely changed my life."
The local youth will visit Israel from July 19 to 30. The Israeli youth will visit Philadelphia from Aug. 6 to Aug. 15.
For information about MIFGASH: Ambassadors for Partnership, which is planning its 2007 Partnership 2000 exchange, call Lisa Sandler, director of the Community Youth Initiative, at 215-446-3044, or visit www.jewishphilly.org/teens.