One is often struck by the articulate nature of students who participate in the America-Israel Friendship League’s “Youth Ambassador Student Exchange” program.
Such is the case with two students from Oklahoma City’s Bethany High School. Cole Miller and Alex Hodge are exactly what the long-running program is all about, so much so that they might as well be “Ambassador” Miller and “Ambassador” Hodge right now!
“On Day One, we were all about ready to jump out of the plane, we were so excited,” Cole remembers. “They [Israelis] had signs and balloons, cheering. We just lit up. Instant hugs. Pictures. They were super excited to see us.”
The YASE trips are known for the bonds students make with each other, even decades later, and the Bethany High delegation experienced that from the first moments. Alex (like Cole, a junior) also vividly remembers landing in Tel Aviv:
“When we landed in Israel I looked out the window and it was amazing because it looked like America. I realized we weren’t in America anymore. When we got out, and saw different faces and people, I knew I was about to have a great time and experience the best two weeks of my life.”
Bethany High School students, at home in central Oklahoma City, have enjoyed the fruits of the YASE program before. Piper Kelly, a secretary with Bethany since 2010, had visited the Holy Land in 2009, and since then has become an integral part of the trips, coordinated with the AIFL’s Cassia Anthony. She had no qualms about going again:
“Before we left we were in New York City, and it hit the news that three people had been stabbed in Gush Etzion. We talked to Dr. [Don] Wentroth because we knew parents would be concerned. Cassia had asked that we have security anytime we went anywhere. Meetings back home with parents and the superintendent went well, and all the parents were fine. None of the parents had any major concerns. They said, ‘We know you guys will keep our kids safe.’
“We arrived in Jerusalem and you couldn’t tell anything was going on. Even though something had happened in Gush Etzion, you couldn’t tell anything out of the ordinary. Kids were a little annoyed that we couldn’t take city buses anywhere!
“We stayed in a hostel with a lot of soldiers. One of the chaperones asked about the color of their boots. Brown boots meant special forces, black everyone else. I remember thinking We are in the absolute safest place on the planet. Half were special forces!
“Every time I come back I kind of go through a minor type of security anxiety because they have very visible security measures that we don’t have in the U.S. While we were there the Paris attack happened, as well. When people asked if I was afraid, my answer was absolutely not; I felt safer in Israel!”
With anxiety not a factor, Cole and Alex got down to the business of living briefly as students in Israel. It was a feeling so marvelous, neither will ever forget.
“I found out over a year ago, from a neighbor’s cousin,” Cole remembers. “I talked to him and knew I wanted to sign up for it. Two years before I said I was interested. It was just kind of a surreal thing to go to Israel; I had wanted to go since I was 8. We started the process with 35 students: face-to-face interviews, writing papers. We needed to show we wanted to go and would dedicate time and effort to be part of the program. That was really important for us.”
He also benefited from that amazing group of parents from Bethany.
“Mom was ecstatic, very, very supportive. My parents’ support meant a lot, it was very encouraging. Some students were apprehensive; people in the community told us it was dangerous. My parents weren’t like that.”
The Bethany students first experienced Israel by hosting their counterparts, who landed at Will Rogers International Airport, and began to get to know Middle America. Cole can still see the Israeli students as they arrived.
“The Israeli students were jet-lagged so we gave them space. The first day we looked at each other and thought, we are going to have a lot of fun. Who knows what they’ll be like! But it was very exciting, getting along with them.” That included helping their new friends understand American culture.
“Everybody was hugging, being really friendly,” says Cole. “We went to our school and we had big signs; they felt really accepted. We took the Israelis to a pumpkin patch, a Thunder game, the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, hiking in the Scott Mountain Range. We carved pumpkins, and took them to a haunted house and theme park!”
Alex also marvels now at the overall experience:
“Getting back, it was challenging, I think. Because I had spent so much time with these people and I had to get back and resume my regular life. Overall, the trip had a positive impact on me. Before the trip I wanted to be a pilot, and going on this trip secures this choice for me.”
Both students echoed Piper Kelly’s view, as well, on the security issue. Imagine 16-year-olds visiting the volatile Middle East, sandwiched between terror attacks in Paris and California. Alex too was amazed by Israeli security.
“I absolutely felt safe in Israel, even in the hostel we stayed in; IDF guys were standing in the lobby. I felt extremely safe.”
Cole and Alex were moved deeply by their host families. Everyone has a story, as they say, and the Israeli families were no different, although their stories were quite unique.
“My host family was my host student, his little brother and the mother and father,” Cole recalls. “I found out while I was there that his parents had escaped Ukraine when they were teenagers. You don’t hear stories like that every day. At the end of the day, though, they were just like my parents: brush your teeth and make your bed!”
Alex’s host family took him to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.
“It certainly interested me and impacted me. Then, we were shown the most amazing sites around the country. My favorite day was at Masada, the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi. The Dead Sea was amazing; I’m a swimmer and it was odd not being able to swim!”
There were also plenty of opportunities to interact with their peers in schools. Cole relished the new environment.
“We went to four schools. It was really cool, because we walked in and were instant celebrities. ‘Say hi to the Americans!’ We met a lot of different people, and I remember thinking that these students were out of my league; they go to school six days a week, and it lasts longer so they get their subjects much faster. Their juniors had already taken classes we are just now taking.
“Overall, the trip was quite a bit of homework, but I would not have — I mean, that trip was life-changing, so it was all worth it. It gave me a different view of things. I don’t look at the people I’ve been friends with for 12 years the same. It’s just something that’s different in me and in everyone that came back.
“That was one of the coolest things. I got up this morning and sent a message to Ron, my friend from Israel. I know I could say, Hey man, can you help me think this through? I feel blessed I could say that.
“Because of this I really want to go back. I know at some point in my life I will definitely go back at least once. We loved it so much, I will go back.”