A tree was planted in Israel recently to honor Elaina Espinosa’s great-grandmother.
Espinosa isn’t Jewish — neither was her great-grandmother — but she is one of six Tucson high school students who went to Israel in November as youth ambassadors for the Tucson chapter of the America-Israel Friendship League.
“The day I got back my great-grandmother passed away. I was really close to her. Once the kids from Israel found out about that they were really supportive,” she says, adding that AIFL members Ken Miller, the trip chaperone; Naomi Weiner, executive director; and Barbara Wayne, executive vice president, attended her great-grandmother’s funeral.
“That meant a lot to me and it brought the whole experience back home with me, the unity in Israel and the love for each other. And they planted a tree in my great-grandmother’s memory. It just reminded me of the whole experience and how grateful I was to have gone,” say Espinosa, a junior at Rincon High School.
AIFL ambassadors are chosen through a rigorous process that includes an essay, references and multiple interviews along with minimum GPA and extracurricular requirements, says Miller, who served as chaperone for the second time. The pre-trip training is intense, with classes during the summer and an extensive reading list. By the end of the process, says Miller, the teens’ knowledge of Israel probably surpasses that of most adults in Tucson. On their return, the teens share their experiences by speaking at various venues.
In November, before heading off for more than two weeks in Israel, Tucson ambassadors hosted Israeli teens for a week here, and then spent several days in Washington, D.C., and New York, where they met up with other groups of American and Israeli students.
“The whole trip was amazing,” says Espinosa. Touring was wonderful, she says, but what was most special was meeting the Israeli teens and learning that despite their different backgrounds and the physical distance between their countries, “we have so much in common,” from musical tastes to school to family dynamics.
Her Israeli host family, she recalls, wondered if she’d think they were weird because they’re always joking, “but that’s exactly how my family is.” And bizarrely, by recognizing Hebrew words that are similar to English or Spanish, plus a bit of body language, Espinosa understood the family’s dinner table conversation. “I thought that was really cool and they were really proud of me,” she says.
In Tucson, Calvin Harrison, a junior at Ironwood Ridge High School, especially enjoyed taking Israeli students his family hosted to the Dia de las Muertos parade. “I’d never been there myself,” he says, explaining that living in Tucson, it’s easy to take Hispanic culture for granted, but experiencing it through the eyes of the Israelis made him appreciate unique Tucson traditions.
Harrison was impressed with AIFL’s pre-trip orientation, noting that the youth ambassadors studied Israel’s history, economy and political structure, reading both nonfiction and novels. But nothing could prepare him for the reality of actually being in Israel, he says. “I thought I knew a lot, but from the minute I stepped off the plane it was so much more than I thought it would be.”
Harrison, who describes his family as secular — his mother was raised Catholic and his father is Jewish “but not raised religiously” — says one of his most vivid memories is a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“It was Shabbat. It was amazing to go down to the Wall where there were so many people praying. I think in America we have this vision of the Eastern European Jew, that’s what we see when we think of Judaism, but there was just so much diversity,” he says, adding that everyone was really welcoming, “even though they could tell that we were tourists and we didn’t necessarily know what was going on.” A group of dancing soldiers let the boys into their circle. “It was amazing to see how warm they were to us,” he says.
On top of the Temple Mount, he notes, they could also see the Dome of the Rock, “and we heard the muezzin call from the mosque, and it was just amazing to see all of that concentrated right there, especially on a Friday night when all the Jews are going to pray and all of the Muslims are leaving prayers. It was so special because when you hear about the Middle East you just think of conflict and hatred and tragedies, because that’s what you hear in the news. There were security checkpoints all over the Old City, but there was a sense of peace that I got there.”
The visit to the wall also stood out for Victoria (Tori) McDonald, another Ironwood Ridge junior. “We heard the Jews praying, and we also heard Muslims being called to prayer and the church bells ringing at the same time, so that was really cool, seeing the unification between them.”
For McDonald, the biggest lesson was that while the landscape of Israel is indeed spectacular, “It’s not the land that’s beautiful, it’s the people that make the country beautiful.”
More than 3,600 American and Israeli teens have taken part since AIFL began its national exchange program in 1977.
Espinosa, who stays in touch with the Israeli girls she hosted, confides that one of them wants to come live in America. “I told her to move in with me,” she says, affirming that her parents are completely on board with that plan. And it’s not just Espinosa who’s stayed in touch. “What’s really cool,” she says, “is that all of my friends that they met at school, they’re still in contact with them.”
“It’s amazing how the AIFL program is set up, that you don’t have to be Jewish to go,” says Espinosa, who is Catholic, “and that they paid for the trip. If I had to pay I would have never been able to go. I think that’s really important. That was really, really cool.”