So Much More Than Sh’mot: Reflections on a Teen Exchange Program
by Rabbi Joshua Strom
Last Shabbat began the book of Sh’mot, the book we call Exodus. It is the seminal story of the Jewish people, of our freedom and redemption, the leaving of Egypt for the Promised Land of Israel. Two weeks ago, 10 of our teenage chalutzim, or pioneers (along with me and two other staffers from our congregation, Hope and Linda) embarked on an Exodus of our own – the first Teen Exchange program between Temple Shaaray Tefila and our partner congregation in Haifa, Ohel Avraham and the Leo Baeck Education Center. But Exodus is the Greek translation of Sh’mot. What it really means is “names.” And the sh’mot, the names of our chalutzim, are Talia, Jordyn, Lauren, Lauren, Hannah, Samantha, Julia, Bernie, Jack, and Jack. Brave, adventurous souls, most of whom had never been to Israel at all, they had no idea what was in store for them.
The honest answer is, neither did we. Sure, our staff had worked for hours upon hours upon hours crafting an incredible itinerary. We knew that all of the activities planned all over Haifa, Jerusalem, Akko, Tzfat, and Tel Aviv would be wonderful. We had no doubt. How would our teens connect with theirs? What if they didn’t connect at all? We literally had no idea what to expect.
But, after all the careful planning, to quote my favorite group, Phish, “the trick was to surrender to the flow.” And from the moment we cleared customs and came through those sliding doors, there, waiting for us with balloons and signs and warm smiles and open arms, were most of the Israeli delegation. We learned their sh’mot, their names: Adi, Alice, Shir, Rinat, Noa, Rotem, Yuval, Noy, Yuval, Itay, Itamar, and Maayan – and then we got to know them, the people behind the names, their lives, their stories, their families, and how they came to be living in Israel, in Haifa. At the end of our first full day there, having spent the day in the Druze Village of Daliat El Carmel, we shared Havdalah with the students and their parents, all crowded cozily together in a small tea lounge. As it turns out, that Havdalah was more than just the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week. It was, in fact, for all of us, a separation between the people we were when our plane landed at Ben-Gurion, and the people we were about to become.
Over the next 10 days, we acquired a lifetime of knowledge — about ourselves, about each other, about what it really means to be part of the worldwide phenomenon that is the Jewish people. We established and deepened our own personal connections with the land and the holy sites that have bound Jews together for thousands of years. We learned that some things are universal, like shopping and Facebook and Doritos and terrible hip-hop and that hand-clapping game that I have no idea what it’s called. We learned that a lot of things are different, like the Knesset as compared to Congress, like the fact that anyone can sit in on a Supreme Court case, like what high school kids are thinking about and concerned with in the years immediately following high school. We learned that count-offs, in any language, are utterly useless. We learned that sweet talk and charm can get you an awful lot in the Machne Yehuda market of Jerusalem, for just a shekel, or even less. (Ask Bernie, he somehow came back to us with a fish head in a bag!) We learned that photobombing, the act of sneaking yourself into others’ pictures, is in fact a skill, dare I say, an art form, and one in which I am nearing levels of mastery. We learned that 10 minutes following a full meal is exactly the time to begin looking toward the next time you’ll be eating, that Bamba and Bissli are addictive, and that Krembo, the Israeli version of a Mallomar, is even better than a Mallomar.
And yet, as wonderful and enriching as all of that knowledge is, that alone cannot conjure the magic of deep, intimate personal connections we were so blessed to witness among the students. Something else was at play, some invisible hand, and of course, for me, that’s God, making things happen in a way that is so, so much greater than the sum of the parts. And standing in front of the congregation at Ohel Avraham, the same exact place where I had stood just a year ago as part of a small delegation of dreamers, sharing words in lashon ha-kodesh, the holy language of Hebrew, and looking out over the interwoven, yet seamless tapestry of Israeli and American students, I was absolutely overwhelmed with emotions, and had to fight back tears throughout the rest of the evening. To have the opportunity to see our dreams come true, right before our very eyes, was something I will cherish in my heart for the rest of my life.
Here are the words written by Adi Chen, a teen from the Israeli delegation, in a note for our whole group upon our leaving:
Dear brothers and sisters, my new brothers and sisters,
I’m not a religious man, yet it’s quite amazing that I met you on the same Shabbat that Joseph gets to know his “lost brothers.” If we think about it we all are brothers and sisters, that life and events had separated us before, but this past week we got a chance to make a reunion of brothers and sisters. Only people who are brothers and sisters, as you are to me, could connect with each other and feel so close, so related, as we did this past week. Just yesterday, after the party, Jack M. told me that he feels he has known me so much more than a week. That is the essence of being sisters and brothers—to be connected without being physically together.
There is a song in Hebrew that is called Rikma Enoshit Ahat, which means “One Human Tissue.” We are all “one human tissue.” This week I began to learn about a different culture, and yet that you are kids just like me. The differences on the one hand, and the shared identity on the other hand, is amazing to me.
From now on, you are all part of my “human tissue”—different, yet the same.
It’s funny that the week you leave is the week that Israel (Jacob) leaves his children. I’m sure that you will be part of Israel forever and ever, and that wherever you will be, we will be for each other.
I say to you today only L’hitraot, meaning “we will see you again.” This is not goodbye!Love you and already missing you all, my new family,
L’hitraot. “See you soon.” Not just in March, when it will be our turn to host our newfound Israeli family. But hopefully, the powerful connections forged on this sacred pilgrimage will inspire us to create and deepen our own relationships, with Israel and her people, for the rest of our lives.
Rabbi Joshua Strom is the associate rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.
Originally posted at Gateways and Tents: The Partnership Blog, where Rabbi Strom and others blogged about their trip to Israel