Latino, Black Students to Try Life on Israeli Kibbutz : Travel: Ten seniors from Roosevelt and Crenshaw high schools are being sponsored by nonprofit group Operation Unity.


Jesse Solano admits that when his probation officer suggested that he join a group of inner-city teen-agers who were planning to live on a kibbutz in Israel for two months, he was less than thrilled with the idea.

“I thought he was crazy,” said the 18-year-old Roosevelt High senior, who spent time in juvenile camp for car theft and has been involved in gangs. “I figured since I was getting in trouble, he wanted to get rid of me. But now . . . I think this is cool. It’ll be good to go somewhere else, learn about another culture. I’m looking forward to it.”

Solano is one of 10 seniors--five Latinos and five African Americans--chosen from Roosevelt and Crenshaw high schools by the nonprofit group Operation Unity to make the trip to Israel and experience life as kibbutzniks--residents of a communal village who share work and daily duties.


Despite the shocking Feb. 25 massacre of 48 Muslims by a Jewish extremist in Hebron, students say they are looking forward to going, some even more so in the wake of the tragedy that triggered street riots and dramatically increased age-old tensions between Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East.

“We’re on a peace mission,” said Christian Tavarez, 17, a Roosevelt student whose rapid speech reflected a characteristic intensity. “The murdering was an isolated incident. We’ve all been through tension here in L.A. We go through it every day. None of us are scared to go.”

Students plan to leave April 4, despite the fact that Operation Unity Director Cookie Lommel says they are short $15,000. After the massacre, two donors who had agreed to help sponsor the trip withdrew their support. But Lommel, an African American journalist who fell in love in Israel on a visit two years ago, is determined to find additional funding to make up the shortfall.

Lommel enlisted the aid of Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre and Reps. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (D-Panorama City).

“They’re definitely going,” said Alatorre, who is optimistic about getting the money. “This is too important. The riots have already taught us that isolation and segregation, not knowing each other, creates problems. This trip will teach youngsters about another culture while also helping them to see the proud traditions of their own.”

Lommel’s inspiration for the kibbutz program began with her journey to Israel in 1991, when she decided to see for herself the relationship that had reportedly blossomed between Ethiopian Jews and the Israelis who had welcomed them. She returned to the United States impressed with what she saw.

She was further impressed when she saw a screening of “Black to the Promised Land,” a documentary that charted the experiences of African American students from a tough New York High school sent to live on a kibbutz for three months. After dragging their feet in the beginning, the students became so attached to their Israeli hosts they didn’t want to leave, she said.

“That’s what really sparked me,” Lommel said. “After seeing how Ethiopians and Israelis interacted in Israel, I started thinking to myself, ‘What about African Americans and Jews here?’ I became totally fascinated with the idea.”

Although she started Operation Unity to address black-Jewish relations, Lommel said she opened up the kibbutz group to Latinos to broaden their cultural outlook.

“A lot of Latinos know practically nothing about Jewish life, and it’s a history they can benefit from learning about,” she said. “Just as minority groups who have endured oppression, blacks, Latinos and Jews have a lot in common.”

Lommel contacted Mike Miller, a Los Angeles native who works as an emissary for an Israeli-based organization. Miller, 44, agreed to accommodate the students on his kibbutz, Beit Zera, located a mile from the Sea of Galilee.

“This program is very positive in that it addresses the misunderstandings and promotes better communication,” Miller said.

Students will have to adjust to more than just cultural differences. They will be expected to rise at 6 a.m. daily to begin six-hour workdays in plastic factories, fruit orchards, kitchens and dining rooms, day-care centers and other sites.

Sandy Wolfson, a Roosevelt counselor and history teacher, will supervise the students in their schoolwork, which they must continue to receive academic credits.

Rochelle Brown, 18, says she is going for something much more than a good time.

“We’ll be going on an archeological dig, unearthing a town. It’s so interesting to learn about past cultures and civilizations,” said the 18-year-old Crenshaw student, who became interested in the Middle East during a class research assignment on the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Yeah, my parents had second thoughts about me going. But you can’t prejudge a place based on things you’ve heard. You have to go with an open mind.”

Ricky de la Paz, also 18 and a fellow Crenshaw student, agreed. “I’ve always wanted to see different places, especially the place where Jesus was born,” he said.

But what do the students think about missing such monumental school events as the senior prom?

Tavarez shrugged. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “You can’t compare a once-in-a-lifetime experience to a dance.”