Arlethia Jackson was scared when she left in mid-November with two other District high school students on a month-long visit to Israel, because nearly all she had learned about that country had to do with its continuing war with its neighbors.

But when the 16-year-old McKinley High School junior arrived, she said, she felt no less safe than on the streets of Washington.

"The families in Israel consider the war between Arabs and Jews to be just a normal part of their life," Jackson noted last week at a reception honoring the three students, who were among a group of 36 American youths who went to Israel on a student exchange program.

"Kids have to go into the army when they graduate. They feel it's their country and they have to fight for it," Jackson told school officials, relatives and sponsors of the traveling students, who were among the 150 persons gathered at the school board's Presidential Building headquarters.

Jackson; Ann Cheilek, 15, a junior at Wilson High School; and Antonio King, 16, a junior at Cardozo High School, shared anecdotes about their travels, the first overseas trip for each of them. The trip was sponsored by the United States-Israel Youth Ambassador Exchange Program.

"The students and host families were very warm and loving," King recalled. "They really loved black people. Over there the kids eat chocolate sandwiches. One girl told me that black people were delicious like the chocolate. It sounded weird at first, but I knew what she meant."

"I felt so proud to be representing the United States," King said. "It felt so wonderful to share our culture and to be able to say that they learned from us and we learned from them. I felt like raising the American flag because we were received so warmly. The only sad part was having to leave."

The exchange program is sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League and the Council of the Great City Schools to promote peace and understanding between nations, said assistant school superintendent Marilyn T. Brown, who coordinated the exchange program and hosted the reception.

This was the second year District students have participated in the exchange. Three students went to Israel last year.

The students were chosen from 12 candidates nominated by high school principals. Donations to finance the trip, which cost $1,300 a student, came from area private foundations, business and civic organizations, among others.

From Israel, 85 students were sent to the United States, including 15 who stayed with District families and visited city high schools.

The three D.C. students spoke before Israeli high school students, describing life in America and its capital. They stayed with Israeli families.

For Jackson the trip left an indelible impression of the sad reality of war, she said.

"It was sad because every family we stayed with had someone in their family killed in the war," she said. "A lot of our host families were the only ones left."

Cheilek recalled: "One boy told me, 'The army is me, my father, my brother.' They believe the army is an extension of their family. The United States could learn a lot from them about patriotism."

During the reception, Israeli Consul General Benjamin Abileleah presented the students with posters printed to symbolize the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

The students also received certificates stating that a tree had been planted in their honor in Israel's Martin Luther King Forest, which represents, they had learned, the renewal of life for the Jewish people living in a country born after World War II.

Ruth A. Davis, a senior watch officer at the State Department, called the students "young diplomats."

"I think that if all the diplomats made the same types of impression as these young people," she said, "there would certainly be increased understanding among all nations."