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Wednesday, January 20, 1993

My Israel

                                                                                                       January 1993

Dear GUCI Staff:

Twenty-four years ago this month I began a short, but illustrious career as a schoolteacher in an inner city Chicago school.  I had just graduated from the University of Illinois and faced the jungles of either Vietnam or Chicago.  I taught (refereed, de-armed, self-protected etc.) and learned to love some of the poorest Black and Hispanic and Greek kids on Chicago’s West Side.  Emmet School, once almost completely Jewish, now a crockpot of minorities, was a typical three-story, red brick, Chicago elementary school, K through 8.  I taught everything from Kindergarten to Library to Gym to eighth grade and used every camp technique I could possibly conjure up.  It was an experience!  In any event, I left in June for camp (the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin variety) and this is where my story really begins.

That summer of 1969 I was both a Unit Head and Waterfront Director; we often had to double up on jobs in those days as we were always short staffed.  I didn’t care about doing two jobs.  If there had been 30 hours in a day, I would have worked 25 of them for camp and been happy as a pig in ----.  This was the summer before Jerry Kaye, the present Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby, came on to the picture.  Rabbi Allan Smith was the acting Director.  That was the summer that I decided to become a camp director, and based on that thought Smitty convinced me to go and study in Israel at Machon Hayim Greenberg at the end of camp.  Incorrectly thinking that my teaching contract would not be renewed, I went.  Three days after saying “Yes” I was on a Greyhound bus bound for NYC and a date with El Al.  What freedom! 

That year in Israel was the start of many things for me.  I learned a lot of Hebrew, began a love/not-love relationship with the land of our ancestors, and met a Brazilian girl named Juelci Zeltzer – the infamous Juca.  We were young, Israel was young, and it was a hell of a year.  I also had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I spent an afternoon with David Ben Gurion, on his kibbutz, Sde Boker.  We drank coffee together (he drank tea) and talked about Israel and Aliyah.  I never understood why he smiled so when I told him I was from Chicago, some warm memory came to his mind, I guess. 

 I returned in June, an engaged man, about to become the Assistant Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, on my way to family and career.

Three years later, Juca and I spent another year in Israel, this time as a rabbinic student studying at the Hebrew Union College.  We once again returned in June, went straight to camp for the summer, and anticipated another monumental adventure; Juca was six months pregnant.  Jeremy made his debut in Cincinnati the following October, during the Yom Kippur war. 

Since those days I’ve been to Israel two more times.  In December 1979 I led a group of 36 college kids on a one-month trip of touring and kibbutz living.  Jim Bennett and Joel Block were first year HUC students that year and we spent much time together.  My last time in Israel was in 1987, for just a week to interview Israelis for our camps’ staffs.  Sandford was a first year rabbinic student then and hosted me around the city of Jerusalem.

In all these years, Jerusalem has had its own particular kind of tug at my heart.  So many important events in my life and so many important people in my life are intimately connected with the times I spent there.  Why am I telling you all this?  Well tomorrow I embark on a ten day UAHC staff trip to Israel, and I am filled with feelings of nostalgia, excitement, and anticipation.  I feel like I am going home, but to a strange place, if you can understand that.  My first time there I turned 24, this time I’ll celebrate number 47.  Then I was a kid, now I’m not.  But still, I feel a rush, a sense of butterflies, an anticipation of the familiar and unknown all rolled up in one.  It’s about the way I feel each year in the beginning of June, as I approach another camp season.  I’m going back to the future to touch base with my identity.  It is sure to be an exhausting and emotional trip.  I’ll be traveling with Josh Bennett, Jim’s younger brother.  That somehow seems most appropriate to me.

I wish you all the best for a wonderful 1993.  I’ll let you know how the hummus is on Rehov Ben Yehudah.