That first week in Israel was something else. Iâ€™d like to say that I remember it well, that it all stands out in my head with complete clarity and recollection, but I cannot. It is twenty years since then and so much has happened.
The thirty-eight of us is at last count only 36. We lost one to suicide during the Spring of 1989 and another to a brain tumor in 1998. I am in regular contact with a handful of people and aware of about another ten or twelve. It is fair to say that in one way or another I can provide some kind of update on about half the group.
Most are married and there are around 18 children or so that I know of, perhaps even more that I havenâ€™t heard about. It is hard to reconcile what I know of us today with the people we were.
I remember so well sharing a dorm room with four other guys and the wars we had with the other guys. Water balloons, stale Bazooka bubble gum and so much more. Even though we were ten thousand miles from home, to a certain extent some of our behavior mirrored what it
would have been had we remained at camp.
And at camp with the advent of Shabbos so close we would have begun looking very carefully at the girls, trying to figure out who we wanted to try and impress. Who was cute, hot and so attractive that you couldnâ€™t wait to see her dressed up on Friday night.
Shabbos may be spiritual and religious in nature, but letâ€™s face it. A group of teens on their own in a foreign country, there is bound to be some activity because we were all on hormonal overdrive.
So I was a bit surprised with my reaction to our first Shabbos in country. It began with a walk from the base to the Old City, the Kotel was our destination. I remember parts of it well. The conversation I had with a very dear friend stands out to me, some of the buildings and people do too.
But it wasnâ€™t until we began walking over the rooftops in the Old City that I began to notice that there was something special in the air. It wasnâ€™t until we got closer to the Kotel itself that I really began to feel something.
It was the connection that I had felt there earlier in the week. The bond that I felt towards all the other Jews in the plaza who were davening and the unmistakable feeling that G-d was there with me, us, them, everyone.
It was stronger than it had been before.
It was almost surreal.
I felt like I was in some kind of science-fiction movie in which I was traveling through time and space. It sounds goofy, but I really did feel like I was standing in the same place that I had been in thousands of years before and at the same time experiencing it for the first time.
And more than anything else I was pleased to feel like I was part of the group, I was in on the secret. I was happy to be able to daven with kavanah and real belief and not to sitting there waiting for Maariv to end. It wasn’t a chore to be endured but a pleasure.
It was just one more piece of chain that brought me back into the fold that made me believe again. This is a story that really could be much longer and much more eloquent and to some extent I feel that I am not doing it justice because how I can share something like
this, how can I explain something that tugs at places so deep inside you donâ€™t know that they exist.
If I was a man of brevity I would end this tale here, but there is too much to share, too much to say and I need to add another moment or two to my story.
The next morning at Shacharit I was a little disappointed because that feeling from the night before was fading. It was like an amazing dream, the kind that you wish would never end so you try to go back to sleep and get it back, hold onto it so that it doesn’t disappear. But trying to do that with a dream is a little bit like grabbing a fistful of water, no matter how tight your grip it spills out from a million different places.
I can remember daydreaming, lost in thought of the night before. We had danced with reckless abandon and sung out loud, almost shouting the prayers, but still with reverence. There was a power and an energy. As I look back I realize that it was a little bit like being buzzed, there was a high and I fed off of it. All week I waited for Shabbos to return so that I could experience it again and each time I got lost in the moment. I began to wonder if this feeling was going to be limited in time and place. I got my answer a little later.
It was Tisha B’AV and we were in the hills overlooking the Old City. We read Eicha and discussed the burning of the Temple, the sack of Jerusalem and the moment made a huge impact upon me. I could look out on the city and picture the flames, in my mind Jerusalem was burning. I could hear the screams of the women and children, smell the fear and feel the greed of the invaders.
I might have cried, but I couldn’t tell you for certain. I was so caught up in the moment, so enthralled and so amazed that something could move me that way.
The next day we returned to the Kotel and again I lost myself in the crowd, but this time I made my way amongst the crowd to the wall itself and just lay my head against it. My eyes were closed and my hands caressed the stone.
Time passed and the end of the trip grew closer. I began to get anxious about returning to Los Angeles because Jerusalem had become home to me. If I could have I would have stayed. I would have stayed indefinitely. Jerusalem had captured my heart and soul.
The night we left solidified everything. Just before heading out to Ben Gurion we hit the Kotel to say goodbye. It was after midnight and the plaza was lit up. As I headed down the stairs I heard the Shofar blowing. It was like the bugler in one of those old Westerns in which he plays his horn as the cavalry comes charging in. It grabbed me, pulled me, tugged at my heart and made me choke up.
I knew then that when I left I would leave part of me behind. There is a piece of me that never came home. A place in my soul that only opens in Israel, that comes to life in a way that it never does here.
When I got on the plane home it was with great reluctance but it was with the knowledge and acceptance that G-d does exist. It felt good and it felt right, dayenu.
(Cross posted on Jewish Connection)