Galilee Diary: EIE - High School in Israel
... Go up there in the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?
–Moses' instructions to the spies, Numbers 13:17-20
Coincidentally, I recently received in the same week an announcement of a reception for EIE alumni at the URJ Biennial (Union for Reform Judaism), and a call from my Israeli "sister," with whom I haven't communicated for over a year. The realization that my connection with her was now over 50 years old stirred up a wave of memories.
In 1961 Rabbi Samuel Cook, the director of NFTY, founded the Eisendrath-Israel-Exchange (EIE) program, which brought three students from the Leo Baeck School to North America for a semester, and sent three American kids to the Baeck School for the next semester. The assistant rabbi at our synagogue (North Shore Congregation Israel, outside Chicago), Robert Samuels, was an enthusiastic supporter of the project, and nominated me as one of the three in that first exchange. None of her friends could believe that my overprotective mother would let me go, but apparently Zionism (and pride) trumped fear – and this was before the communication revolution: I ended up speaking by phone with my parents two or three times in the six months. I wrote them an aerogram every week like clockwork – and here I am, still writing weekly letters about my experiences here...
When people ask me why I decided to make aliyah, my standard answers are: a) the cucumbers; b) no longer having to feel guilty for criticizing Israel; c) the challenge of creating a true Jewish state; d) the opportunity to live in a Hebrew environment. Those are the reasons I can articulate in words. However, the unarticulable reasons, that have probably had a stronger influence on my life, are rooted in a collage of sensory memories of that formative six months in my life. They periodically are called up by a current experience, and take me back to what it felt like to be here, on my own, as an adolescent, in an adolescent country that felt romantically primitive compared to American suburbia.
The cold and dampness of the winter in Haifa; citrus blossoms and diesel exhaust; falafel on Nevi'im Street, with techinah running down your hand; the crushing crowds at the Tel Aviv Purim parade; the horah circles in the streets of Haifa on Yom HaAtzmaut and a military parade the next day; trying to sleep in the oppressively hot, mosquito-infested youth hostel at Masada on the school trip; hitchhiking (!); Paul Anka's 16 Greatest Hits at every party; steel chair legs screeching across the terrazzo floors at school; white cheese and halvah sandwiches for school lunch, gooey on a warm day; ice coffee on the porch with the family after the daily siesta; teachers who exemplified the educational approach: "if it was good enough for Germany 40 years ago, it's good enough for us!"; riding buses everywhere; no air-conditioning; Shabbat at the Haifa beach; peering over the fence at the Old City of Jerusalem; sunflower seeds; struggling through Achad Ha'am's "Past and Future" in Hebrew; deep adolescent thoughts about life and sacrifice and authenticity. Wondering where I'd end up, wondering if I really wanted to live here or if I was just imagining that I really wanted to live here.
In 50 years, EIE has become a "program." In my time it was very much an individual adventure; we were not a group, and we had no staff. We each pretty much created our own experience. Whether because of my readiness or my luck I cannot say, but it clearly was a life-changing semester for me, which I am still processing. And it turns out that I really do want to live here (most of the time...).