In June, 1971 just days after my 15th birthday, I arrived at JFK ready to spend my junior year of high school in Israel on EIE. I only knew one person on the trip before we left, my rabbi's daughter. Our congregation had a long tradition of sending kids on EIE from the beginning of the program. I had spoken to a few of them and thought I knew what to expect but in reality I was clueless. Even so, EIE was a transformative time in my life and perhaps one of the most important in shaping the person I would become.
It was on the flight to Israel that I began to get to know the other students and begin to feel comfortable. After a 13 hour delay in Amsterdam we finally arrived in Israel. It was pitch black as we reached the tarmac, no jet ways back then. One of us was humming the theme to the movie "Exodus". I felt so overwhelmed that for all I know it might have been me.
We somehow got through immigration and customs. Our leaders hustled us onto a bus for the ride to Ben Shemen Youth Village which was to be our base for the summer. Exhausted, bedraggled and definitely needing showers we found ourselves in a communal room getting a security lecture. Don't climb the fences and you won't be shot. In fact don't go anywhere near the village fence as only 5 years earlier it was the border between Israel and the West Bank. Don't pick up anything off the ground because it may be a bomb and you could lose a hand or an eye. I was so tired it was days before I remembered the warnings.
Shuffled off to a room with my new roommates for the summer, we barely unpacked and were falling into bed when one of my roommates came screaming in the room that there were no toilet seats. I'm thinking who cares and the other roommate is ecstatic because he had heard a rumor that scorpions live under toilet seats. No toilet seats = no scorpions. To paraphrase - we weren't in Cleveland anymore.
The summer passed at a good pace. We got to know a few of the permanent residents in the little free time we had. Our early mornings were spent working. Some were assigned to move irrigation pipes in the cotton fields (as one of my friends put it from knee deep mud to ankle deep mud.) Some were assigned to clean the chicken coops. I and a few others were sent to the greenhouses. Our summer assignment was to clean out under the rose bushes. I still have the scars from thorn scratches I got those first 2 weeks because they didn't give us gloves. My salvation came one day when someone from the carpenter's shop told me I was assigned to him. Thanks to my poor Hebrew and his poor English what was supposed to be a 2 day assignment turned into the rest of the summer before either of us figured out I was supposed to be back in the greenhouses.
I think our group bonded in the Ulpan and the afternoon free time. Class and homework was something we all understood. But it was our field trips from Rosh Hanikrah in the north to Sharm El Sheikh in the south the transformed us from a group into a community. It was more than the hours on the bus, meeting new immigrants from Russia at the airport, the hiking, the emergency archeology dig in Beit Shaan, the incredible sites, the climb of Masada and Sinai or even the entire group skinny dipping off the beach in Sharm. On those trips we talked late into the night around a campfire with guitars playing a mixture of American rock and Israeli folk. We shared our deepest dreams and secrets.
As summer ended we were divided up and sent to live with Israeli families for the school semester. I had a triple bonus. My Israeli "brother and sister" were Sabras. My "parents" were Iranian Jews and I lived in a real house with a real back yard. I believe I was the only one who didn't live in an apartment. But it was the fourth blessing that made me the envy of everyone. Because my Israeli father had a high position in the Ministry of Defense we had a phone in the house AND free long distance! I could call whomever I wanted in Israel, assuming their family had a phone. I was living in the lap of luxury.
In 1971, even though all my classes were in Hebrew I learned more math, science, French and history than in any other semester in high school. I learned how to climb walls in Gadna (our pre-army training) and thus was able to scale the wall of the school, skip class and wander the back streets of Ramat Aviv. It was there that my image and understanding of Israel changed and matured.
I went to one of the best high schools in and around Tel Aviv. I lived with and went to school with other middle class and upper class kids. But just outside our wall existed an entirely different universe. The streets around the school were lined with huts and shacks with tin roofs, mud walls and only tattered cloth to cover their windows. The voices there spoke Hebrew and Arabic. Durning my months there I learned that these were Jews who had made Aliyah 15 years earlier from North African countries whose absorption into Israel had placed them into a time warp from which they knew there was no escape. From that moment forward Israel was no longer black and white. It was every shade of grey and every color of the rainbow at the same time.
No story of my time on EIE would be complete without mentioning the fun times. My first kiss was under a street lamp in old Jaffa. My first time in a Mikvah was with one of my EIE friends when we went to visit a religious moshav to see a friend of his who thought he was Nathan the Prophet. Three of us planning to hike to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv until our Israeli parents found out about it and grounded us. Skipping school and going to Jerusalem to visit friends without permission, getting stuck there because of a snow storm and sleeping on the floor of the HUC dorm. All of us drinking and sleeping in the NFTY office and waking up with our first hangovers and desperately trying to clean up before Hank Skirball came to get us.
One of my group is still my best friend. At least 2 others have died. Three of us became rabbis and at least one made Aliyah and runs an incubator program for medical technology start ups. Our incredible leaders and rabbis are all still in Israel and I can say without a doubt that EIE was a true blessing in my life.