Before leaving on a trip to Israel in early November, Anthony Ruffin, a senior at Spingarn High School, was warned not to venture into the streets of Jerusalem at night. He might become an innocent victim in the cross-fire between Jews and Arabs there, people told him.

But what the 17-year-old found in his month-long, five-city tour of the Holy Land was quite different. "Everywhere,everyone was friendly," he recalled, adding that trips like his "strengthen the bond between the two countries.... I [had] heard things that I found out later were untrue."

Ruffin is one of three D.C. public high school students selected to participate in the America-Israel Exchange Program. Along with 20 other students from high schools nationwide, the three journeyed to Israel Nov. 4 for an intensive tour while 90 Israeli students flew here. The program is designed to promote understanding between Israeli and American youth.

Apparently, it was the first time the D.C. school system had ever participated in an international student-exchange program. Ruffin and the other two District 17-year-olds, Leslie Price and Cheri Chatman, returned with tales of their travels and encouraged other students to take advantage of the program.

None of the District youngsters had ever traveled abroad before. For each, the trip was, as Price said, "a dream come true."

The McKinley senior jumped at the opportunity because it "was something I used to only see on TV or read about." For Chatman, a senior at Calvin Coolidge, a trip to the Holy Land was "a dream for a Christian." Ruffin, who works part time in the State Department's public affairs office and aspires to be a foreign correspondent, said he "saw right away how it coincided with what I want to do."

During tours of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Haifa and Kfarsava, the three students visited Hebrew classes, chatted with Israeli students and school officials, helped teach English classes, wandered through museums and synagogues, and learned to bargain at the Arab markets. They stayed with different host families in each of the five Israeli cities.

All three were fascinated by the kibbutzes they visited near Haifa. "Coming from America, I had never imagined a situation where people could do such things together," Ruffin said of the self-supporting farm cooperatives. "They work together, they shared things, they raised their kids together..."

The students regretted having only six days in Jerusalem. "It was the highlight of the trip," said Price. "You read about where Jesus walked -- and to be able to walk the same path!"

The Americans were struck by differences between Israeli and U.S. teen-agers. "I think they grow up faster," said Price. "After high school they have to go into the army, men for up to three years and women for up to two."

But they were surprised to discover that Israeli and American teen-agers are "basically the same." Israeli youngsters also like to go to parties, listen to the same music, "and they all watch 'Dallas.'"

As part of its tour of American cities, the Israeli student delegation stopped in the District for about two weeks to visit career training centers, special education institutions and public schools. "They were especially impressed with the new facilities at Woodson Senior High School," said Marilyn Brown, the D.C. school system's assistant superintendent for student services. Brown, school board Vice President Bettie Benjamin and Esther Plotkins, chairman of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, helped raise funds for the program.

Ruffin, Price and Chatman plan to begin college next fall. Ruffin plans to study journalism; Price and Chatman both will major in business administration.

Because students were not notified about the program's availability until early September, they were not expected to pay their own way this year. Instead, expenses were paid with approximately $3,700 raised from various sources, the most generous contributors being the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington and the United Black Fund. Black Fund President Calvin Rolark and UJA Assistant Executive Vice President H. Chaim Lauer saluted the effort as "a fine example of cooperation between the Jewish and black communities."

Brown said future program participants probably will be asked to pay part of their travel expenses, but it is uncertain how the trips will be funded next year.