Twenty years ago I returned to New Jersey after my first trip to Israel. I was 16 years old and had just spent the first semester of 11th grade in Jerusalem together with half of my classmates from Akiba Hebrew Academy. This past semester, my family was happy to open our home to David Bass, Marti Dembowitz and Maddy Yasner, three Cherry Hill natives who were spending five months on Akiba’s Israel program.
Our relationship started when I was on a trip visiting my mother in New Jersey. During Friday night services, Rabbi Lindemann of Temple Beth Sholom warned me that the next morning he was going to give me a challenge and put me on the spot. I wondered he had up his sleeve.
Saturday morning, in what had already become a welcome tradition when I attend my hometown synagogue during visits to America, I was honored with an aliyah and shared with Rabbi Lindemann in a brief discussion about Israel with the congregation. The aliyah following mine was given to these three students on their way to Israel. Afterwards, the rabbi asked me what I would tell these young people is the one experience they could not miss while visiting the Holy Land. I paused for a moment of thought and responded, “Shabbat at my house.”
The question was not as challenging as I’d expected. For visiting American Jews, experiencing Shabbat with an American Israeli family in Jerusalem is a taste of something won-derful and I am happy to offer it openly.
The lyrics to the chorus of one of my favorite Israeli songs reflect the attitude of hospitality prevalent among Israelis — an attitude that I have adopted:
“If there is a guest at the gate who has landed from across the sea,
What will we offer the guest who has come from over there?
A green basket, a white flower, red wine, a piece of bread with salt.
That’s what we have here.”
In Israel, our homes are open and we are eager to have guests. As the song suggests, we are happy to share what we have.
It is not a one-way street. Having guests enriches our Shabbat as well. And of course, making new friends is like finding a treasure.
Over the years, we have hosted many students. Some for one Shabbat, some for many Shabbatot throughout a year’s stay. Some keep in touch, some do not. All are very special to us and help to make up part of what is wonderful about living in Jerusalem: The opportunity to be part of a young person’s journey of self-discovery and a part of their “Israel experience.”
A trip to Israel is rarely not a life-changing event. Even a short trip can change the way you look at the country, the region, Judaism, God, Jewish history, the Jewish people and yourself.
This past Shabbat, the winter air was crisp and clear. Together with our guests, we climbed up to the roof of our apartment building for the breath-taking view. To the north we could see the Mount of Olives where Jews have been buried next to the Old City through the centuries. To the south we saw the ridge of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel which has fallen in all of Israel’s wars only to be rebuilt each and every time. Looking east, on the horizon, we could see the sun shining on the red mountains of Jordan and below them the Dead Sea. Even our guests, exhausted from a week of army training, studying for finals and dormitory life agreed it was worth giving up some of their Shabbat nap for this spectacular sight.
During our visits we spoke about life in Israel and life in Cherry Hill. We opened our sukkah to them and ate around the Shabbat table. We looked through my old yearbook and chuckled about high school teachers who are still teaching at Akiba 20 years later. Each of us learned more about each other and consequently the distance between American and Israeli Jewry was bridged a little bit, the stereotypes diminished. Knowledge and friendship replaced ignorance and apathy.
Thank you to the parents who let their children go off to a distant land, knowing that they will come back changed. It is a great gift that you are giving both to them and to us.
We look forward to welcoming many more of you on trips with schools, synagogues, youth groups, families and missions. I encourage all of you to take this journey of self-discovery. Delve into the past, the present and get a glimpse of our future by visiting Israel. We would love to host you.
To those of you who have already experienced Israel, ask yourself when you are coming back. This was the advice my counselor gave my classmates and I 20 years ago: Set a date. Even if you do not make it at that time, use it to mark the time when you want to return and do not let it pass without taking note.
Our home is open to you. We look forward to seeing you in Jerusalem. Contact me at Charlie@Kalech.com.