There is so much that separates them. History. Religion. Politics. Culture. Violence. But for almost three weeks, 39 teenagers are trying to become their own community, citizens in the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute, known as JITLI (jit-lee) for short.

Among them: 10 Israeli Jews from Sha’ar HaNegev, next to the border of Gaza; 10 Bedouin Muslims, who live in Israel in the nearby community of Segev Shalom; nine Palestinians (seven Muslims and two Christians), who live in Gaza; and, 10 Jewish students from San Diego.

JITLI is in its fifth year, though this is the first time the group has come to San Diego (the local teenagers usually join their counterparts overseas). And both Bedouin and Palestinian youth are in it together this time (last summer, for example, there were Bedouins but no Palestinians).

It is named after Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs, well-known leaders in the San Diego Jewish community who also are the program’s founders and primary benefactors. Jerri-Ann Jacobs calls it an investment in the future. Maybe, she said, when they are a little bit older, they will talk instead of fight.

The schedule was packed. They arrived here last Thursday. On Tuesday morning, they left for Spain, to study the interfaith history of that country. Then it will be on to Israel, where the program ends Aug. 8.

And so it began.

Thursday, July 22

The teenagers from the Middle East, along with their leaders, rode down the escalator in Lindbergh Field’s Terminal 2 to claim their luggage and their place in history.

Waiting at the bottom were the local participants – including 17-year-old Allegra Levy of University City, who made a welcome sign painted on the back of Hanukkah wrapping paper.

“I didn’t have any butcher paper,” said Allegra. She had printed the words “Shalom” and “Salam” at the bottom of her sign. “Peace” in Hebrew. “Peace” in Arabic.

The area was a swarm of jeans and tennis shoes. A few of the Muslim girls wore traditional head scarves, or hijabs. Gaza participants also had scarves, hanging down around their necks, with the Palestinian colors of red, green, black and white.

Their first stop in San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument. “This group is all about getting to know each other – breaking the stereotypes,” said Gary Jacobs, standing in front of a statue of explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast of what we know call the United States. “You took the first step by getting on that plane,” he told them, while a Bedouin leader translated in Arabic.

Jacobs, the son of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and past president of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County, said he started this program to help the people of Israel be more safe. “At the end of the day, it’s good for all (of us),” he added.

It was now early evening and the group was in Old Town’s Heritage Park, outside the old Temple Beth Israel building, San Diego’s first synagogue. The teenagers danced and sang. At one point, an Israeli Jewish girl grabbed the hand of a Palestinian Muslim girl and tried to persuade her to come up and dance. It was enough to give Yaacov Schneider, JITLI’s Israeli-born director, goose bumps.

“These two communities are shooting each other and this was so pure,” said Schneider, a teddy bear of a man whose optimism is contagious. He had already told the kids what he hoped for them: “To know each other better and better every hour.”

The young people broke a clay pot. They were breaking barriers, they said. “All we know is we want to fix our world,” said Shelly Podlipsky, a 17-year-old student from Bonita, adding: “We are determined to be the generation that changes things.”

Friday, July 23

These are not your hard-liners. Besides having leadership potential, applicants had to show an openness to learning about each other.

Suliman Abu Zarifa, a 17-year-old Muslim from Gaza, wants to stop the fighting. “He wants peace,” an interpreter said for him after Suliman spoke in Arabic. “He also said we are all the sons of Adam so we should make peace.”

He and the others were eating lunch at the Islamic Center of San Diego, where the teens joined local Muslims for mid-day prayers.

That night, like the night before, they stayed in the homes of San Diego participants. They also joined their hosts in observing the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

Bob and Susan Lapidus of La Jolla hosted four girls – one of them being their 17-year-old daughter, Hali, who lit the Sabbath candles, covered her eyes and said the traditional opening prayer.

Sitting on a couch, they shared stories about themselves and their families.

Dana Ben Asher is 17, her father is a farmer and she lives on a kibbutz in Sha’ar HaNegev, which is like a sister region to the San Diego Jewish community. Mona Anton, also 17, is a Christian living in Gaza, where her father is an officer in the Palestinian army. Amani Abu Takefa is 15, a Bedouin Muslim in Israel and the daughter of a factory worker. Hali’s father is an attorney.

Palestinian teens participated in 2000, the inaugural year, but then the Middle East violence escalated. Now they’re back (there were supposed to be 10 teens but one was not able to get his U.S. visa in time).

After dinner, as part of the program’s project to make videos about their experiences, Mona held a camera and asked the others what they thought when they heard Palestinians would be attending.

“I was very excited,” answered Hali. “The Palestinians being here made the program more complete.”

The communities where the three visitors are from are so close they are practically neighbors. Yet they are strangers. “I wish that we all would be good friends after the project,” said Dana. “If it would be like that, the project would be perfect.”

Saturday, July 24

After going to Sea World, the teens formed a circle on a Del Mar beach at sundown to observe the Jewish custom of ending the Sabbath. Parents of the local participants watched as youths joined arms and sang and danced.

Four cultures, three languages, one circle. “It’s such an amazing thing,” said Michelle Werbeloff of La Jolla, whose 17-year-old daughter, Jaime, is in the program.

The teens and their leaders, minus the parents, camped out on property owned by the Jacobs family. Their shadowy figures were ringed by torches and portable fireplaces.

During this first part of the trip, the strategy is for them to refrain from talking about politics. This is the time to get to know each other. The tough stuff will come later, in Spain and in Israel, when the conversations will deepen.

“We haven’t gotten into debates or anything like that,” said Alan Levine, a 16-year-old Bonita student.

The mood has been upbeat and optimistic, said Tamir Bourlas, 17, of Rancho Bernardo. “All of us are getting along. I don’t understand why, if we can do it, they can’t.”

Sunday, July 25

Armed with sunscreen and water, the teens spent a hot day on a field at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, where they participated in exercises designed to build confidence and teamwork.

They scaled a rock wall and tried to balance themselves on a seesaw. Boys and girls, in separate parts of the field, climbed poles as other teens helped hold the safety ropes. Girls tried to walk across a high beam and then were lowered to the ground with a rope. Boys jumped into the air to try to grab a trapeze, while others held fast to their tether.

Back in their homelands, missiles and mortar shells continued to fall. But here they were taking leaps of faith.

Heba Khedar, a 19-year-old university student from Gaza, liked hearing the others down below chant her name. “I became strong,” she said through an interpreter.

They would spend the next two nights at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. But before they were finished with the day’s exercises on the field, they were asked to write on Popsicle sticks what they learned. A Bedouin teenager wrote that to be together is good. A Jewish teenager wrote this: “People trust me here.”

Monday, July 26

At a panel discussion at the United Jewish Federation, which provides administrative support for the program, participants were told that change takes time and commitment.

What has to happen before there can be peace?

Dia’a Abu Zarifa, a 17-year-old Gaza resident, said people need to stop talking about wanting peace and start working to achieve it. “We have to get out and make it happen,” he said through an interpreter.

Ben Zion Samin, 16, said citizens, not just governments, need to get together. “The citizens are the ones who can make the change.”

Like others, the Israeli Jewish youth said he hopes that when the trip’s finished, they will visit each other. “Not just JITLI and that’s it,” Ben said. “If it would be like that, it would lose its meaning.”

Gary Jacobs estimates he’s spent about $1.4 million on the program. Is it worth it? “Absolutely,” he said. “You’re looking at the future leaders.”

Tuesday, July 27

In the early-morning gray, the Jacobses arrived at Continental’s check-in counter. The teens and their leaders were close behind.

There was Suliman, with his enthusiastic smile. And Ben, easy-going yet earnest. And Amani, shy and polite, her face framed by her head scarf. And Shelly, confident and sincere.

Throughout the last five days, they spoke of the hope of making a difference. There also was talk of a day when the terrorism, the occupation and the suffering in the Middle East will be gone.

One by one, they made their way through the security line and on to Gate 36. Could these young people really be on the path toward peace?

Published in: The San Diego Union Tribune

Credit: Sandi Dolbee is RELIGION & ETHICS EDITOR at The San Diego Union Tribune. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.