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My Family’s Life-Changing Summer in Israel

March 6, 2017 | by D.B Estrin

My brother, the more observant Jew in our ultra-liberal family, convinced me and my siblings to explore Israel together.

I was a typical college student in the 1980s with a Jewish education comprised of bits of knowledge about Hanukkah and Passover. Israel was not on the radar.

My brother Adam was on a study-abroad program at Cambridge University. His international relations curriculum was great, but he was fed up with England’s overcast skies and gloomy weather. “Tell me where I can go where it’s always sunny,” he asked a friend.

“Go to Israel,” his friend told him. “There isn’t a cloud in the sky all summer.”

That’s how Adam found himself standing next to the Western Wall during his summer travels. The only problem was that he’d sprained his ankle which dramatically limited his mobility.

Rabbi Meir Schuster, the ubiquitous rabbi who engaged Jewish travelers at the Western Wall in short discussions about their Jewish identity, walked over to Adam and tapped him on the shoulder. After a brief greeting, Rabbi Schuster told my brother about Jewish learning opportunities where he could explore the relevance and meaning of Judaism. Since his bum ankle was preventing him from doing the touristy things he had planned, he figured he might as well try this out.

Those few weeks he spent at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem’s Old City made a profound impact on his life. I noticed the changes right away when he arrived back in New York. As we were heading up the Palisades Parkway, Adam told me about Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s class on the 48 Ways to Wisdom and how the course conveyed practical Jewish wisdom anyone could apply to their life.

I always thought my brother was sharp and witty, bold and self-possessed – but here was a different Adam.

When we pulled up to a toll booth at the George Washington Bridge crossing, Adam gave a friendly “hello,” pulled out a snack to give to the toll attendant, and said, “Have a great day.” I always thought my brother was sharp and witty, bold and self-possessed – but here was a different Adam. This was someone who was making an intentional effort to be more considerate and attentive to others. Was this change in his personality coming from his recent encounters with the religious world in Israel?

A Jew in a Foreign Land

It was my turn to do a semester abroad and one of my university professors convinced me to join a group going to Vienna. We would be studying music history, art history, German, and the professor’s baby, the “Atomic Age.” But I was about to get a parallel education – an “Intro to Jewish Soul 101.”

As we toured the empty wasteland of Buchenwald, I was filled with an inexplicable sense of estrangement from the rest of the group.

It started when our professor, a non-religious Jew married to a Mormon Christian, included sites of Jewish interest in our itinerary. As we toured the empty wasteland of Buchenwald, I was filled with an inexplicable sense of estrangement from the rest of the group. I was awash with emotions that I couldn’t share with the other students and certainly couldn’t make sense of myself.

Back in Vienna, a group of us attended a performance in German of Fiddler on the Roof. I knew that the play depicted the loosening grip of the Jew on his tradition in the crucible of modern life, but for me any grip was welcome contact.

Sitting in the midst of a gentile Austrian audience, in Hitler’s homeland,

I suddenly realized that I connected to the characters represented on stage far more than I did to the people sitting around me. I left the dark theater and strolled out into the brilliant winter sunshine – and felt confused.

Our program included a trip to Prague. One of the places we visited was the famous Altneuschul and its adjoining museum. The professor led us quickly through the museum, hardly offering any explanations. But even hurried along by the group, I noticed some beautiful silver artifacts, strangely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

I turned to the only other Jewish girl in the group. ”Why don’t we come back here tomorrow by ourselves and have a good look?”

The next day was a Friday. It was almost evening when my friend and I entered the old shul building. The pews were filled with elderly Jews and a sprinkling of younger men, whom we subsequently learned were dissidents. Like their counterparts in Communist Russia, these young Jews had applied for permission to leave Communist Czechoslovakia and had yet to receive it, losing their jobs in the process.

The great Star of David engraved over the door, the glowing lamp over the ark, and even unexpectedly identifying with the struggles of these Jews from this foreign culture further stirred my emotions about being Jewish.

With My Siblings in Israel

Adam had since returned to Israel for further study and he planned to take his siblings with him – our oldest brother, an electrical engineer living in Rhode Island, our sister in college, and me. He had been writing letters to us and convinced each of us to meet him in Israel that summer. At that point in our lives two of us were on the verge of intermarrying. Our ultra-liberal parents had a “whoever you love, we love” approach thus far, but when marriage looked imminent and our choices included a culture more foreign than even they expected, my parents suddenly became Zionists. My brother was inviting us to come to Israel and soon my parents were prodding us to agree – paying and arranging for it to happen.

Two of us were on the verge of intermarrying, something even my ultra-liberal parents weren’t happy about.

So on the last day of the semester, I left Vienna with quickly dwindling funds and made my way south by train, through Yugoslavia and Greece. A short flight brought me to Israel with entirely empty pockets and a mind filled with curiosity.

Adam was there, to my great relief, and my other siblings were waiting for us back in Jerusalem. The very next day the four of us trekked up Masada. We had time to reacquaint ourselves with each other after years of going in different directions. Now, in our twenties, we had begun to solidify certain life outlooks, our feet well entrenched on particular paths. Could we all connect to this experience in some common way?

Adam became our tour guide of Israel, the yeshiva world and our first Shabbos experience.

After exploring the charm and mystery of Tzefat, the expansive beauty of the Golan, all the while absorbing whatever history lessons Adam had gleaned in his time in the country, we were ready to settle down and explore Jewish learning. We fanned out in varied directions to learn more about Judaism, captivated and excited, and then reconvened each week for Shabbos.

Our poor Shabbos hosts! Invariably, the three of us – two feminists and all of us liberal, leftist atheists, came armed with a barrage of questions. Evolution, belief in the Bible, women’s place in society…we heatedly discussed all these issues and we were impressed by the grace, generosity and intelligence of the people we met.

Smooth sailing it wasn’t. The four of us, in varying ways and time spans, navigated rough seas, sometimes facing what appeared as tidal waves, until we found our new shores.

Whatever superficial readings of the Torah I had come across in the past, repelled me or rendered me utterly disinterested. Now in a Jerusalem classroom, I cringed at the mention of the word "God" because I grew up with it presented to me as either the invention of weak minds or something out of Dante’s Inferno. Taking a fresh look at the Jewish perspective was challenging but rewarding.

What happened to those plans that our parents were hoping to thwart at the last minute? Well the magic of Jerusalem shook things up enough, and all four of us married Jewish, two of us making Israel our home. We still tread unique paths, but that summer brought us closer together, closer to our heritage and altered the direction of our family forever.

And this all began with Rabbi Schuster’s tap on the shoulder.

Written in tribute to Rabbi Meir Schuster on his 3rd yahrzeit, Adar 17 5774, February 17, 2014. Yehi zichro baruch.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book, It Happened at the Heritage House: Tales from the Legendary Jewish Youth Hostel [Menucha publishers 2017]

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