January 2014

Bayview Teenager Wants to Visit Israel

Sasha Lekach

Bayview resident Jamal Thompson is an African-American Seventh Day Adventist and student and athlete at Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School. He also works three days a week at the Mission Recreation Center. The 16-year-old has spent two summers at a Jewish overnight camp in the Yosemite Valley, Camp Tawonga, and is raising funds to participate in a camp trip to Israel with his Jewish friends this summer.

Thompson’s involvement with Jewish programming seems like an unlikely pairing. His mother, Bivett Brackett-Thompson, was attracted by the summer opportunities Camp Tawonga offers youth—no matter their faith—and the camp’s willingness to provide financial aid and community service options. Jamal, now a junior, had spent previous summers and after-school hours participating in community service projects at homeless shelters and food banks, and wanted to experience a camp environment.

According to Brackett-Thompson, Tawonga matched her son’s religious needs as a practicing Seventh Day Adventist, with similar food restrictions. Sabbath is observed on Saturdays for both religions. She said Jamal came back after his first summer at camp knowing all the prayers he was taught at church, but in Hebrew.

“I learned a lot about Judaism and connected with the idea of community,” Jamal, who wants to go to college to be a sports therapist, said about his time at camp. He said his fellow campers accepted him, and “they didn’t mind I wasn’t Jewish.” He even taught his friends about Seventh Day Adventists, and discovered many similarities.

After enjoying two summers over the past five years at the Camp Tawonga, Jamal wants to participant in the camp’s month-long Teen Service Learning Israel trip. But he has to overcome a significant challenge: the nearly $7,000 fee.

According to Camp Tawonga materials, during the trip “teens will discover their ability to make a difference, see the beauty of Israel, and learn what it means to be a responsible Jewish global citizen…This program is designed for teens who want to travel in a meaningful, intentional way; engaging in service and study while taking in the magic and beauty of Israel.” 

Jamal is excited to see Jerusalem. “Israel is a holy place,” he said. “I’m trying to get more spiritual.” He’s traveled abroad before through a boys’ choir, but going to Israel is more of a pilgrimage connected with his budding religious values.

Despite being named after a European diplomat who protected Jews during the Holocaust, there aren’t many Jewish students at Wallenberg High School. Jamal’s peers are surprised that he wants to go to Israel. “A lot of the kids I know haven’t even left the City,” he said. Through his trip “I want my friends to see other opportunities.” Mostly the reaction has been positive, and his friends are supportive. 

His mother has also received positive reaction from her Bayview neighbors. “Some people are scared,” she said, when they hear “Israel.” She admitted that as “a child of color” Jamal may face racial and other social issues while abroad. Still, she’s encouraging him to go. “I think it’s also a good opportunity to see how other children live and how they handle community issues,” she said.

Jamal’s excitement about next summer’s journey to Israel is tempered by the task of raising the necessary funds. His mother said they’re trying to raise money from Bayview, Dogpatch, and Potrero Hill businesses to sponsor Jamal’s trip. Brackett-Thompson hopes to make a shirt with all sponsors’ logos that Jamal can wear while traveling through the desert of Israel, and which he’ll photograph at iconic Israeli spots. When he returns he plans to hold a community presentation at the Southeast Community Facility.

Tawonga helps potential campers raise funds by providing tools, such as online fundraising pages. As of last month, Jamal had raised nearly $900 on his online fundraising page, where he offers a thorough explanation of his expectations of the trip, “I will get to participate in community improvement projects and work side by side with Ethiopian and Israeli teens and their families in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, Galilee, and Negev,” and of his hope to come back to San Francisco and tell his peers about what he learned and did in the heart of the Middle East.

Donations can be made at http://www.gofundme.com/Jamal-Isreal. 

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