There is hardly a Jewish family in the United States today that does not want their children to grow up with a love of their Judaism and strong ties to the Jewish homeland, Israel. And while Jewish families from coast to coast struggle with how to make this happen, the Israel Sports Exchange has begun to address this issue. This summer the Israel Sports Exchange proposed a challenge to eight young competitive Jewish swimmers, 17 to 19 years old, from all over the United States. The challenge was not to give up a trip to Israel in order to train and not give up their training for a unique travel experience in Israel. The Israel Sports Exchange would provide both, and more, including home hospitality, daily interaction with their Israeli peers and extensive travel around Israel.
The seeds for this wonderful adventure were sown many months ago as several dedicated and competitive athletes were approached to be part of this program. Many were skeptical at first. Could the Israel Sports Exchange deliver on all it promised? Would there be ample time to practice? How would a group of diverse young athletes from America get along, and even more important, would the Americans be able to relate to and bond with their Israeli peers? Was their Jewish faith the only common ground, or would they, as the organizers of this program believed, come to realize that Israeli and American teens had a lot more in common than not. And while their love of sports and their Jewish heritage started out as the only shared interests, it was obvious by the end of the 30 days, that the American and Israeli teens had found many, many more similarities than were even anticipated.
From the moment these young athletes arrived on Israeli soil, their immersion into Israeli life began. They were greeted by Yuval Higger, the program director, and Zohar Maayan, the program social director, and treated to a welcome barbecue on the Mosenson campus which was hosted by a group of Israeli teenagers from Hod Hasharon. These Israeli teens were to become their hosts, friends, and traveling buddies for the next thirty days. And although jet-lagged, the American swimmers were off to the Wingate Institute to start their training for the national championships.
In their first few days the touring and cultural opportunities were many and quite varied. The American athletes were treated to a moonlight cruise of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, a day trip to Jerusalem, Shabbat dinner with their host families in Hod Hasharon and a tune-up swim meet in Kfar Blum, where they had the chance to meet many of the Israel swimmers they would become friends with and compete against.
It was now time to explore southern Israel and be hosted in the town of Arad. As the pace of the touring increased, the training intensified as well. It was training before jeep and camel rides in the desert and a full moon hike through the flower caves. Their visit to Masada started as a sleepout in the desert under the stars. They awoke to a glorious sunrise followed by an intense climb to the top of Masada where the history of the Jewish fortress was explained. No visit to the south would have been complete without a swim in the Dead Sea followed by a full body mud bath, a truly unforgettable experience for all! Evening activities included festivals and a Bedoum dinner, with each event further solidifying the common bonds that existed between these two groups.
Finally, it was time to explore the heart and soul of Jewish history with an extended visit to the most magnificent and holiest of cities in the world, Jerusalem. And while history was the focus, having the dormitories 100 meters from the practice pool allowed for daytime tours of Jerusalem, and evening practice sessions and parties. From the joy of being able to pray at the Western Wall, visit the tunnel below the wall, and shop in the old city, to the sadness of Yad-Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, Jerusalem did not disappoint. The night life was also special from hanging out at Ben Yehuda Street and Nahlat Yehuda to the clubing at night, it truly demonstrated the uniqueness of this unforgettable city.
As the Israeli National Championships drew closer, the Americans continued their dual schedule of practice and touring. Next on their travels was a trip to the upper Galilee in the north where everyone enjoyed the beautiful natural wonders of the Golan Heights. There were dips in spring fed waterfalls, a relaxing rafting trip down the Jordan River, and more challenging excursions like bicycle tours, hiking and zip-lining.
With the National Championships only one week away, the Americans returned to Haifa to prepare to compete and be hosted by the Haifa swim community. The Americans returned to living the life of Israeli teenagers, practicing together with their new friends during the day and doing every day activities like movies, trips to the mall, and relaxing at late night coffee houses together when practice sessions were over.
While each new adventure and trip to a different part of Israel was uniformly praised by the American teens, nothing could compare with the experience and excitement of competing with the best Israeli swimmers, including the Israeli Olympic swim team. As new friendships were formed, old ones became deeper and more firmly rooted. The hospitality was truly unbelievable and the athletic competition was unforgettable. The sportsmanship and loud cheering for all the American participants was overwhelming and touched the hearts of all. A farewell party enabled everyone to verbalize and crystallize what an unforgettable and remarkable program they had just experienced.
The Israel Sports Exchange's first effort to bring together American and Israeli athletic teens was voted an unqualified success by all who were involved. The feedback from the American teens was full of superlatives, many calling this trip to Israel "their best summer ever!!", as having had "the time of my life", and having made friends and memories that will remain with them forever.
While there are many other programs that allow American youth to visit and travel in Israel, the Israel Sports Exchange is unique in that "it allows kids to truly embody the Israeli teen life", while continuing to train and improve their athletic abilities. It is upon this foundation and the efforts of programs like the Israel Sports Exchange that American teens will develop a deeper love of their Judaism and strong ties to the Jewish homeland of Israel.