CNN U.S. News

American teen-agers find new direction in Israel

Banana field

November 10, 1995
Web posted at: 10:52 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Anne McDermott

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The work in the banana fields of an Israeli kibbutz is hot, hard work. But not as hard as growing up in parts of Los Angeles can be.

So, in the spring of 1994 some so-called "at risk" Los Angeles teens accepted an opportunity to go to Israel to work on a kibbutz through a program called Operation Unity. The group included teen-agers who had gotten into trouble and into danger, like Valerie Weldon.

Valerie Weldon

"I mean, I'm lucky to be sitting here right now because I was shot at, like, seven or eight times," said Valerie, one of the teen-agers who went to Israel. "I just got hit once." (72K AIFF sound or 72K WAV sound)

Shawn Taylor

Shawn Taylor also went on the trip. "I didn't have nothing to really push for ... Basically, I didn't really care," he said. "And this Israel trip, what it did for me, is it gave me hope."

The idea of sending troubled teen-agers to Israel started with Cookie Lommel, a Los Angeles writer. In writing about the Los Angeles music industry, Lommel noticed a unique relationship between African-Americans and Jews.

Cookie Lommel

"We're an industry where more African-Americans and Jews work together than any other industry in America," she said.

So Lommel founded Operation Unity to send some kids to a kibbutz, an Israeli work cooperative. There they would learn about their hosts and themselves, by living and working together with a little time to play.

Home videos showing teen-agers in the program playing basketball with Israeli kids show the experience delivered what Lommel hoped it would.

Teens together

"The harmony. The harmony of people understanding each other, working hard together, and just being one," said Lommel.

Jesse Solano

It was a life-changing experience for Jesse Solano. He barely knew where Israel was last year and barely knew where he was he was going. Today, he is in college studying for a career in the medical field. A lot of the credit goes to Operation Unity, he said.

"I learned how to be responsible," said Jesse.

Valerie, who is presently working full-time, plans to go to college too. She said life on the kibbutz, where she became close to a Holocaust survivor, taught her that she was somebody.

"When I was in Israel," she said, "they were always telling me, 'Valerie, you are so special and you don't even know it.'"

As for Shawn, he has been accepted at New York University's film school. Speaking at a luncheon for Operation Unity, he shared his new-found philosophy. (192K AIFF sound or 192K WAV sound)

"You know, everybody says, let's look for a color blind society," Shawn told a group he addressed after returning from Israel, "but I think that's kind of backwards because it should not necessarily be color blind, because that's not reality, and we're all of different races and different origins, so the basis of it all is to learn each other. And that's the only way."

If Operation Unity can raise enough money, another group of teen-agers will go to Israel in 1996.


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