When we arrived at the high school we were all sent into the gym along with the other campers, counselors, staff and families. It was a tense situation and there were a lot of tears, cries and whispers.
I remember trying to process what was happening. Back at camp we had all waited on the baseball field and watched as a series of buses pulled in and were loaded up with people.
The youngest campers were only nine and they were among the first to be sent out. We made a point of waving and smiling at them so that they would feel better as we felt an obligation to be good role models.
Bus after bus was filled and then there no more buses, yet we remained. We were told to stand up and we began the first of what would be many marches that summer. We headed up the road out of camp and were loaded into US Forestry trucks. As we left camp I looked out the back window of the truck and watched the flames roll down the hill and wondered what would happen to camp and if my trip to Israel was over before it started as my passport and clothing were all left there.
I can’t quite remember any more if I slept at all that night, but I do remember that early in the morning they got all of us together, the entire machane and told us that we going to daven shacharit.
Initially I was angry and a bit dumbfounded by this as it seemed to be particularly cruel. Why would we be asked to do this. Were they stupid. It just seemed ridiculous to me.
It was during the Shemoneh Esreh that I suddenly realized that I wasn’t just saying the words, that I was trying to participate again. The realization caught me off guard and like any good teenager I immediately ceased participating and tried to pretend that nothing had happened.
There are a lot of other stories about the fire and the things that happened during that time, but they are not relevant to this story, perhaps I’ll share them at a different time. What I can tell you now is that later that day we were able to go back to camp to get our stuff and later that evening we left the high school and spent the night in a hotel by LAX.
The next morning our parents hugged us goodbye at the airport and wished us a safe journey. Some hours later we landed in New York and switched planes, tired, but exhilirated.
As I walked to the very back of that TWA jet I remember being in awe as it was my first time on a 747, not to mention the first time I had been on a plane in 15.5 years. I can remember wondering if maybe, just maybe I was wrong about a few things in my life.
But the introspective thought was pushed aside as I realized that there were literally hundreds of other teens from the other camps on this flight. I was far too excited to do more than gawk at some of the girls and conspire with the boys to impress them with tales of our amazing escape from the fire.
It was a long flight from New York to Tel Aviv and I remember so many other things besides trying to meet girls. One of the primary memories is of realizing that I was a part of a huge community, maybe not as large as some others, but so much larger than I had ever realized.
It felt like every few hours there was a buzz among the passengers as the men tried to gather a minyan. I especially remember noticing that it wasn’t a problem, there wasn’t any lack of volunteers.
It helped to build upon the sense of community that I had been feeling, but in a different way. I grew up being involved in Jewish life, but whenever it was that I stopped believing in G-d I had also lost some of my faith in the community.
That is, I knew that we all shared something in common, but it really didn’t have any meaning to me. Now, the meaning was returning to me. Now I was starting to feel as if I was a part of something special again. On that plane ride I really began to feel like I was coming home again.
(cross posted on Jewish Connection)