The Eisendrath International Exchange Program is one of the jewels in the crown of the Reform Movement. My synagogue, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick, NJ has sent students on this program almost every year since the inception of the program. Some years it is one student and some years it is six students. In the Fall 1977 class there were three of us from AEMT embarking on the most amazing journey that would influence my life forever.
My journey began with a two month stay at the Youth Village of Ben Shemen. There we were immersed in the Hebrew language and did the majority of our touring around the country. My knowledge of Hebrew was already strong having spent a full year in Israel in 1973 – 1974 so I had Ulpan (Hebrew) classes but I had a tremendous amount of free time as well. I was so excited to be back in Israel that I made friends with the Israeli youth in the village and spent many hours “hanging out” with a great group of students.
We climbed Masada, we climbed Mount Sinai, we climbed the falls at Ein Gedi, we snorkeled in Eilat, we explored the Kinneret and meandered through so many ancient ruins. All of this helped us to understand the longevity of the country and the modernity that was slowly coming to this newly formed environment.
But all good things have to end and our summer of leisure ended and we were placed with families or on Kibbutzim. My family was a Sephardic, Orthodox family with a female student my age and two younger sisters. My Israeli mom was pregnant with a fourth child but they still took me in and became a true family to me. I went to an Israeli school and took Tanach classes and some other academic classes many of which were hard to follow and wouldn’t help me when I returned to the states. I’ll admit it now – we skipped school and would hang out in the streets of Jerusalem receiving a different kind of education! I loved Tanach class and French class, but “street classes” were the best!
My Reform Judaism was always in question. Times were so different – it was not a widely known sect in Israel and Israeli’s made fun of it and claimed we were not really Jewish. Despite the fact, that most of them were secular Jews with no training in holidays or religious practice. I can still remember standing in the front of the class or on the playground defending Reform Judaism. It awoke in me a determination to be the best Reform Jew I could be and to be active in promoting it everywhere I was able to promote it.
One example of where my “reform” Judaism came in handy was upon the birth of my Israeli brother. My Israeli mother went into labor on Yom Kippur, I had to call my Israeli uncle, get her to the hospital and let everyone know the news as my Orthodox father would not do any of those things!
The final part of our journey was a two week stay at Kibbutz Yahel. The Kibbutz was in its infancy and we felt like the pioneers! One of my first experiences on the kibbutz was working in the kitchen for cooking duty for the whole kibbutz!! I loved working there, living there, being a part of Yahel. When our time was done we had the option to head to Tel Aviv before going home or staying on the Kibbutz, I opted to stay and it was great. We watched as they built the basketball court and I was part of the first game on the court. How exciting to watch a place bloom in the middle of the desert and it was all about Reform Judaism. It shaped my life, sealed my fate with the Reform movement and helped me discover who I was and eventually who I would become as an adult.
Thirty six years ago I embarked on this wonderful journey called EIE. Since then my synagogue has sent hundreds of students – I continue to be a spokesperson for the program; both my children and my niece have attended EIE; I have become a leader in my synagogue; I have become a leader at ARZA. I attribute much of this to the influence that EIE had on my life and continues to have as I move forward.
I am co-chairing our Biennial Event honoring Hank Skirball and EIE Alumni. Please join us in San Diego for a wonderful evening of memories and sharing.
Sara Solberg Levine is a member of the Fall 1977 EIE cohort. She is a member of ARZA’s Leadership Council. Look for a post from her daughters and their experiences with EIE in the coming weeks!