The US Centennial summer of 1976 turned out to be pivotal. The Sunday New York Times Magazine ran a story on Israel post-1973 with a full page cover photo of an Israeli soldier on the Golan Heights flanked by an Israeli flag blowing in the wind. Something clicked inside me. I made a quick call to arrange logistics. Two weeks later I was on an El Al flight bound for Israel and starting a new book of my life. During that one month trip the seeds were planted for a slow metamorphosis.
I wasn’t sure if I would identify with the land or the people. On the flight, I sat next to an Israeli couple in their late seventies who invited me to their home in Holon for Shabbos. I didn’t know exactly how to observe Shabbat but I felt totally comfortable. The prayer book I used at their shul was not like mine back home. My hosts did not speak much English and I spoke only four or five Hebrew words but we shared an inter-generational bond. I felt that they could be my grandparents. I was jet lagged and awoke Shabbos afternoon around 3pm. They greeted me warmly and unconditionally; their children and grandchildren had meanwhile arrived and it was a beautiful scene. Although we conversed awkwardly, I felt part of the family – and even more so when they served me an ice coffee with overflowing vanilla ice cream.
I signed up for a Haganat HaTeva tour to go North and boarded the bus in Tel Aviv. After half an hour, being somewhat of an experienced naturalist, I sensed two warning signs: 1) the bus seemed to be heading due South and 2) there were an abundance of flippers and snorkeling masks which I didn’t recall were on the itinerary for the Sea of Galilee. So I turned to a nearby co-traveler and said, “They snorkel in the Sea of Galilee?” Yes, was the response.
I should have been more direct and asked if our group was going to be snorkeling in the Kinneret, but my question was interpreted as strictly informational. About an hour later I finally realized I got on the wrong one of two Haganat HaTeva bus tours and was headed to the Sinai for an amazing trip, which might be a metaphor for the rest of my life. I thought I was heading where I wanted to go but Someone Else was giving me the opportunity for a greater journey.
Two weeks later I arrived alone for the first time at the Western Wall. Rabbi Schuster, may he have a refuah sh’leymah b’karov, appeared and asked me if I wanted to meet a Jewish philosopher and if I wanted something to eat. I don’t remember the order of the questions but he brought me some bread and jam and then whisked me into the office of Rav Noach Weinberg z”tl. A second rabbi then entered the room.
After asking the basic Q’s of the who, what, where of my life, the other rabbi continued to fire questions.
“You eat Kosher?”
“At home.” Now this was a truthful answer for me then but that was before I actually understood the laws of Kashrut.
“What do you mean, ‘Keep Shabbat’. We have Friday night dinners, almost always.”
After each of the responses, Rav Noach and the rabbi looked at each other and smiled.
When they heard I was returning to the US imminently for a graduate program, Rav Noach spoke:
“You should keep a journal. Write down what you know about life, what you don’t know and what you need to clarify. Will you come back and study?”
“Yes. After my graduate degree.”
Upon arriving back at school, I called the number someone had given me for a place to go for Shabbos. I dialed the number, spoke briefly, then hung up and threw out the number.
Two and a half years later I returned to Israel to study for “one month”. After two intensive weeks of yeshiva I needed a break, so Thursday afternoon I packed my bag and was headed out – I don’t recall if I wanted to go to Eilat or the Dead Sea. As I was about to descend the steps to catch a bus near the Kotel, Rabbi Schuster appeared. We’d seen each other around since I returned. “Where are you going?” He smiled warmly
“Oh, I’m going to take a little break.”
“Where? Where are you going for Shabbos?”
“Out of Jerusalem.”
“You want to go spend Shabbos with a scientist?”
“A scientist?” He understood what drove me. I accepted. It was a very relaxing but powerful Shabbos. After that I didn’t need a break, B”H.
Hashem sent His malach to me exactly when he was needed. And he was needed more than just the two times that are written here…