Twenty-one years ago this month, I set out for my first trip to Israel. At 16, I participated in Akiba Hebrew Academy’s inaugural program in Israel.
Akiba, together with the Ramah Programs in Israel director, Rabbi Benjy Segal, a Philadelphia native, had tried to initiate the program in previous years. Finally, in September 1983, Akiba’s program was launched, bringing half of my high school class to Jerusalem for the first semester of 11th grade.
Even before we departed, we knew we had many challenges to overcome. As a college preparatory institution, Akiba’s family was very concerned about academics during a critical year for college acceptance. Not only were our grades at risk, but so were the scores on our standardized tests used for college admissions. Our parents were apprehensive about letting 22 sixteen year olds live independently for four and a half months in a foreign country 7,000 miles away from home. Together with worries about safety, security and finances, knowing that previous attempts to recruit participants failed to reach the critical mass required to make the program feasible, we were determined to make the program a success, both for ourselves and in order to allow future participants the opportunity we now had.
Akiba is a special place. Created by the Jewish community around Philadelphia after World War Two, it serves a wide population in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Without enough students of any single denomination to support a Jewish day school, Akiba was founded to serve a wide spectrum of the Jewish community. It was not until I graduated college that I understood the most important things that I learned at Akiba were the values of tolerance and pluralism.
These values were never taught to us in a formal way. We lived them. With students ranging from unaffiliated to Orthodox, in one class we learned the Torah as a history book with the teacher writing God’s name on the blackboard and then erasing it, while the next year we learned the Bible with Rashi’s commentary from a teacher who wore a skirt and covered her head out of modesty and religious observance. Both were respected and seen as legitimate, even if we disagreed with a certain approach for ourselves. When we left for our semester abroad, the largest concern of the Akiba family was that splitting our class in half for a semester would cause irreparable harm to our sense of community. In an age before the Internet, when international calls from Israel took hours to place and cost a dollar a minute, there was sure to be a breakdown in communication. Now it seems obvious that the experience of living abroad with one’s high school classmates not only enriches each student beyond words, but enhances the community as a whole. Twenty years after graduation, I am still very close to my best friend from high school who did not go to Israel with us. Today, he lives in Connecticut and I live in Jerusalem, but the distance has not severed our ties with each other or with the Akiba community.
Here, in Israel, that sense of community and those ties to Akiba continue. Afew years ago, when Akiba celebrated its 50th anniverary, hundreds of Akiba alumni gathered for a celebratory dinner in Jerusalem. My family, like others, has been happy to host participants on Akiba’s semester program for Shabbat and holidays.
However, community is more than dinners and isolated events, it is about support in our day-to-day life and the values we share.
This was reinforced during that semester in Israel. In addition to the sense of community established among my classmates, Israeli society in general functions as a family. More specifically, during our stay in Jerusalem, many of us attended a small Conservative congregation that met in the local supermarket’s bomb shelter. With 30 families at the time, Kehillat Moreshet Avraham opened their doors to us, with many families adopting us, bringing us into their homes and community.
Twenty-one years later, Moreshet Avraham has 100 families, its own building, a staff including a full-time rabbi, and one of Jerusalem’s best nursery schools. Its community has grown and includes numerous Akiba families, mine included.
My two and a half year old son, Maytav, is now starting nursery school. Rooted in our community, we are sending him, as we sent his older brother Shemer, to the nursery school at our synagogue. Like Akiba, the school has a pluralistic approach with children and teachers ranging from unaffiliated to Orthodox.
Another, two-year-old congregant attending school with Maytav will be Liav Gross. Maytav and Liav attend synagogue with their families on Shabbat. They have bar-b-ques together on Israeli Independence Day and visit at each other’s homes. Liav’s father, Jeff, also went to Akiba. Like me, he came on Akiba’s first semester program to Israel. Today, as we were in Philadelphia, our children are not only classmates together, but part of a very special community that is building Jerusalem.