Written by Amanda Leiserowitz
Photo courtesy of Amanda Leiserowitz
When I was about fifteen, the Temple Sinai youth group took a two week trip to Israel. Our new Rabbi and the Israeli woman who both coordinate the youth program were the only adults on the trip; the rest of us were teens of various ages and desert city high schools, maybe ten in total, including my older brother and me.
Most of my memories of that trip are a blur; we travelled all over Israel in an incredibly short span of time, spending no more than three nights in any given place. Remembering it is like a slideshow of snapshots – the first is getting off the bus to eat falafel, pita, and hummus at a restaurant that had red-and-white checkerboard patterned tablecloths. The table was long to accommodate our whole group, out on a covered porch. The cups were plastic. The next snapshot: a nighttime scavenger hunt in a city where we were allowed to wander away from the adults, weave through Hebrew-speaking crowds. I think we ate ice cream. Another snapshot: walking along a beach at night near a noisy market. There was music playing nearby; maybe someone had a ukulele. Another: sleeping in bunk beds at a hostel. I had an upper bunk. Downstairs, there was a dining room, with clear pitchers of water, long tables, and a sliding door that led to a garden. And looking out from a hill over an ancient city, and walking through a crowded market, and floating in the Dead Sea, which stung every part of my body, and visiting the Western Wall, where I was awed by its height, before we went underground to the cool, dim tunnels, where more of the Wall still stood.
The trip was a fast-paced whirlwind, but one place that sticks out to me is the kibbutz we visited, our last stop before flying back to the United States. We stayed with host families who had kids our age, who made the place feel even more real than it had felt before.
One night, we walked through the neighborhood with them, talking in English. They’d grown up with English as much as they’d grown up with Hebrew, or at least nearly; they were far more fluent than I could even have dreamed of being in another language.
It was evening, with long shadows cast down on the road from one-story houses with small yards—and beyond the houses, sand. It was like any other suburban neighborhood I’d been to, the heat and sand especially familiar, reminiscent of the Southern California desert I’d spent half my life in by that point.
I slept on a mattress on the floor, in the bedroom of a girl my age. Her room faced the street we had strolled down, hours before. I remember the streetlamp shining in, and thinking of the bicycles, the culs-du-sac, the language, even the shadows we’d walked through—and the world felt small.
The next day, we piled into a roofless Jeep and drove through undeveloped land around the kibbutz. Someone pointed at some not-so-distant sand dunes.
“That’s the border,” they said. “We’re pretty much at the country’s edge.”
“It doesn’t look like anything.”
“Not really, no.”
“Where is it?”
We all squinted against the sunlight. Was there a line in the sand? Any type of indicator that one land became the next?
No matter how hard I looked, I didn’t see anything. It was all just desert, seeming endless from where we were.
Eventually, we turned around and drove back to the kibbutz, hot wind rushing past us as we bumped along. We had traveled all over Israel for two weeks, from end to end. The country’s smallness boggled my mind. It was an entire country, smaller than my home state of California, far smaller—a fact that I had known, but hadn’t felt quite so real until I was there at the edge. (It wouldn’t be until years later that the vastness of California was clear to me, driving more than eight hours up and down the state—but that’s a story for another time).
We had Shabbat services at the kibbutz’s temple, separated from our old and new friends by gender. Shabbat dinner followed; we all piled into a huge dining hall with long tables, white tablecloths. Both the American and Israeli teens were seated at a table parallel to the windows, turned into dark mirrors as the sun went down. Before us on the table were candles, plates of chicken and vegetables, covered challah. The seating was mixed, unlike in the temple.
The conversation I remember from that night is fragmented.
“Does everyone who grows up here stay?”
What happens to those who left? Those who stayed? I don’t remember all the answers we got to our incessant questions, as there were many. But I do remember, clearly—one of the Americans asking, “Do you like living here?”
The answer was a clear, “Yes.” But it wasn’t a short answer; there were things they wanted to change, including the inequality of genders that was built-in to parts of their lifestyle. And they were prepared to make it happen.
Our last days were much more upbeat. We visited the cows that the kibbutz owned, as saw their mechanized milking process. The teens took us to a public pool with green-painted walls and a tiny convenience store filled with Israeli ice cream. Our last night at the kibbutz was our last night in Israel; they had a barbeque for us, outside, near the community center. We sat on the grass.
When my American group piled back into our van early the next morning, we took selfies with our new friends. It was dark, and we might have been illuminated only by the lights from the buildings—I don’t remember the drive to the airport, or even which airport we went to. I don’t remember the long plane ride home. I must have slept through most of it.
The kibbutz was a paradox of the familiar and unfamiliar. It was a world not unlike my own, with suburban streets, barbeques, and Shabbat dinners. But their society’s rules were different from my own; they followed Shabbat much more strictly than my family ever had. Their synagogue still had gender-separated seating, with women looking down from a second-floor balcony. The teens were bilingual, and brimming with the confidence to make change happen. The community of the kibbutz was tight-knit, but it was no utopia.
There, in the kibbutz, I think I understood what my parents signed my brother and I up for – to see the smallness of the world, and the similarities between people across the globe. Despite the different lives we led, the kibbutz teens and I had a lot that connected us – not just our shared (albeit different) Judaism, but our intersecting worldviews and cultural artifacts as well. It didn’t hurt that we all loved kariot, the chocolate-filled cereal, that we all ate for breakfast, unafraid of asking for seconds.