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'We Became Friends. We Clicked.'
Throughout his trip, Breitbart stayed with 24-year-old Dan Bouskila and his family in Netivot, in the hope that the two men might create a lasting friendship.
"We were very cool together. We hung out every night, just talking and watching the news," relayed Breitbart. "We basically became fast friends. Within days, we clicked."
Each morning, Breitbart -- a kinesiology major at Temple University -- teamed up with Bouskila and worked with developmentally challenged children from Roz Elementary School in Netivot, helping with their exercise, story time and music activities.
"It's tough, but it's a challenge that I really enjoyed accepting," said the student, who plans to make aliyah and work as a physical therapist after finishing college. "This experience is great for my future."
The summer project is part of Partnership 2000 -- a program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to establish and nurture a sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Netivot and Sedot Negev.
Partnering with Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, Federation began sending college students to the region last year, with the goal of allowing those who'd already been to Israel to develop more personal relationships with Israelis this time around. The trip cost participants only $500.
Other service projects included helping Ethiopians learn computer skills, working with the elderly, and helping reach out to at-risk youth in danger of dropping out of high school or joining gangs.
For fun, the students toured the region, taped a radio show about Hillel at a technology center in Netivot, went dancing at a night club in Beersheva, and got to experience a Shabbat dinner with their host families.
"When you're going inside of a house and living with Israelis -- are you going to have a sense that you're connected, as a Jew, to these people? Hopefully, the answer is yes," stated Edward Newman, a social-administration professor at Temple University and chair of the Hillel Campus Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
During the visit, the Hillel group found itself witnessing Israel at wartime, as it dealt with conflicts in both Lebanon and Gaza. As part of one activity, the group traveled to an army base near the Gaza border to disperse baked goods and converse with the soldiers. Soon after the students arrived, there were reports of the possibility of a Kassam rocket attack, and the group was ushered out after only 30 minutes.
"I was sad and frustrated," admitted Breitbart. "I wanted to get to know the soldiers more. We missed a good opportunity."
While playing host to Breitbart and spending time with the other Americans, Bouskila had to attend the funeral of a friend killed in the war, while another Israeli host was suddenly called back into military service.
'A Nervous Feeling'
For some of the Americans, this intrusion of reality had its effect.
"I have friends in the army," explained Aliyah Furman, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's just that feeling [you get] when you hear that a soldier died. They never release the names right away, and you have a nervous feeling all the time."
Furman is no stranger to conflict. Her parents had to fight to gain the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel when she was just a small child. Life in Israel was no easier, and her recent trip brought back frightening memories of living in Ra'anana as a 6-year-old during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991. With the threat of Scud missile attacks hanging over the area, Furman was forced to sit in a sealed room, wearing an uncomfortable gas mask.
"I had a huge afro," she joked. "Now, to go as a 19-year-old, I see things from a different perspective."
The war up north was not enough to stop Furman from bonding with her Israeli counterparts, and she especially liked one Israeli woman who shared similar interests.
"We talked about things like clothes -- as superficial as it sounds," said the teenager. "But in Israel, you can start talking about clothes, and end up talking about God."