Last Thursday afternoon, Continental Flight #0014 landed at Newark Airport, and among the passengers streaming out of the plane was a group of 10 teenage boys returning from winter break in the North Pacific. However, this was no ordinary vacation. The teenagers were Orthodox students from the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (Yeshiva University High School for Boys), and their trip was a seven-day diplomatic friendship mission to the Republic of Palau.
Palau, a former United States trust territory, is one of three countries in the North Pacific that vote in favor of Israel consistently whenever resolutions condemning the Jewish state come before the United Nations General Assembly. The other two countries are the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
Avram Sand, a 17-year old senior at the yeshiva and president of the school’s Israel club, who had interned at the Micronesian Mission to the United Nations last summer, initiated the interest in Palau. This past September, he and Daniel Schuval, the yeshiva’s director of student life, developed a stronger tie with the embassies of all three countries. When Schuval proposed that the students go on a solidarity mission to Palau, Stuart Beck, permanent representative of Palau to the United Nations, helped with the planning.
“The Palauans view Israel as a brave little country in a sea of hostility, and want to support it,” Beck said. “And of course, Palau is a solid ally of the U.S., which supports Israel. Palau is grateful to the U.S. for giving them independence, without any violence. The support they give to the U.S. is mutual, since they agreed to a defense relationship, which means the U.S. can establish bases there, if necessary.”
Nine students of the Israel Club signed up for the mission. They were assured that communicating with the Palauans would not be difficult, since most of them speak English fluently in addition to their native tongue. The boys raised the money for the $25,000 trip, assisted by several private donations, including a generous contribution from the Heyman-Merrin Foundation.
On January 9, 10 students, escorted by Schuval and his wife, Debbie, left for Palau by way of Honolulu and Guam, bringing along kosher food and a Sefer Torah from Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx.
“We were on the front page of the Palauan newspaper, with photos, interviews and everything!” remarked Moshe Kamioner, an 18-year old senior. “All week, wherever we went, even just heading to the local store to pick up some ice, people would wave and yell out, ‘Hey, you’re the 10 people from Yeshiva University!’”
One of the events the college organized was a 20-minute meeting with the president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr. The students thanked him for hosting them, and expressed their gratitude for Palau’s firm support of Israel in the U.N. Shalom Sokolow, a 17-year old senior, recited a special prayer for the people of Palau, compiled by his father, Rabbi Moshe Sokolow. The prayer included several stirring passages from Isaiah. The Bible is not unfamiliar to Palauans, since 49% of the population is Catholic. A third is Modekngei (the ancient Palauan religion), and the rest belong to the Mormon and other Protestant sects.
The students also met with seven members of the Palauan Senate (about three-quarters of the Senate body) and asked them about their personal relationship to Israel. “One of them told us about visiting Israel on Sukkot, with his church choir,” Sand said, “and another told us he was half-Jewish.”
As part of the cultural exchange, a representative of the Ministry of Education took the visitors out by boat to one of the Palau’s Rock Islands (incidentally, the site where “Survivor” filmed one of its segments). The boys snorkeled in the crystal-clear blue waters, climbed coconut trees and split the fruits open with a machete, went fishing with native Palauans and enjoyed a nighttime bonfire. They also visited the abai — the traditional meetinghouse where chiefs hold meetings for tribal affairs. One of the chiefs met them and, with the help of a translator, explained the legends described by the Palauan pictographs on the walls.
The yeshiva students also gave Palauan teenagers a crash course in Judaism and Israel. They met with the seniors of three private schools, in a classroom setting, which encouraged an easy interaction between the two groups. The boys explained the meaning of a prayer shawl and of phylacteries, and called up volunteers to show the teens how to put them on. They also described the holidays and handed out matzot.
The presentation at the Palauan public school, however, was a bit more difficult. Instead of a small class of seniors, the entire student body — roughly 780 students — was assembled outside under a pavilion.
“We started talking to them about Judaism and Israel,” Kamioner explained, “but then we saw it was getting a little boring for them — after all, they’re teenagers just like us — so we decided to pep it up a little.” David Goldberg, a 17-year old junior, cupped his hands and yelled out, “WHAT’S UP, PALAU?!”
The surprised audience responded warmly, and the yeshiva students continued their lesson in the form of a campwide pep rally, culminating in the entire school body singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”
The Jewish high school students apparently made quite an impression on their Palauan hosts. Several days after their departure, one Palauan high school senior, Maungil Leoncio, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward: “They’re the first Jewish people I met. At first I was judging them by their cover but when I started talking to them, I started to like them a lot. Their presentation was one of the coolest we’ve had.”
Rukhl Schaechter is on the editorial staff of the Forverts, from which this article was adapted.