Aviva P ~ As we have learned this summer with the Tesslers, the Jewish day begins at night. In accordance with Jewish tradition, my blog begins at midnight on Monday, August 13, 2012, teatime for SOS International (or Summer of Service as we are called in Israel). We had just gotten back from our night out in Jerusalem on Ben Yehuda (an outdoor mall area) and/or a festival in the Machane Yehuda Shuk (open market). Earlier in the trip, Nate had had a great idea for a night activity of group bonding and chill time, which unfortunately we had never gotten around to doing. For those of you who don’t know Nate, he is the type of man that dreams big dreams and tries his very best to follow through. Occasionally, the Israeli phrase we learned on this trip, “chai ba’seret” (“lives in a movie”) can be applied to him in the best way. He makes suggestions and expresses wishes with an unprecedented enthusiasm, just to try to let everyone have an additional amazing experience. He is sweet and kind and all of his ideas come from sweet, kind places, never from selfish or self-serving instincts. He goes way beyond the call of videographer duty and this has been so lucky, and I am so grateful, to have had him with us. So, this morning, in the first hour, our group sat down to encouraging words and stories, and tea and cookies, from Nate. These weren’t just any cookies; these were Timtams, exclusively not found in the US, and with them, Nate taught us to Timtam-Slam! (For further explanation, please see Nathan Greene, Tel Aviv, Israel.)
After we had finished Timtam-Slamming, with Hannah’s encouragement, the group sat down to a few rounds of Mafia. For those of you who do not know Hannah, she is wise beyond her years, realistic in the most valuable of ways, and pensive in a way that influences the entire group to be more conscious of ourselves and the world around us. Yet, when it comes to have some good young fun, there is no one more enthusiastic. Her bright smile and laughter are so contagious and exuberant that one cannot help but try to make her happy all the time, because when she is happy, we are all happy. Hannah loved it when we played Mafia earlier in the trip, and the rest of the group did too, so as our final bonding activity for our final night, we played again, coming up with new exciting ways for the Mafia to remove certain townspeople, based on jokes and things we have learned during the trip. Many of us were still sitting, listening, enthralled as one o’clock rolled around, despite the fact that many members of the group had agreed to wake up at five to daven at the Kotel.
In the end, Mafia almost won out, but despite their attempts, there was one participant able to arise at daybreak. Though Orly saw the Mafia appeal and watched her friends be sucked in, she saw the point of no return and escaped before it was too late. For those of you who don’t know Orly, she is our group sourcebook. Never lacking an answer, opinion, or guess, Orly has kept us all on our toes and thinking back to our classroom days learning Chumash, Prophets, Maus, and many other books and stories. She is so in love with her studies that she glows when discussing anything she has learned, from Jewish studies to Arabic to Ed Sheeran lyrics, and her glow creates such a warm atmosphere that is so enticing for everyone to follow her lead and take our learning more seriously and more passionately. Passion allowed Orly to wake up to daven vatikin this morning with the Tesslers at the Kotel. Vatikin is an amazing mitzvah of davening shacharit, specifically the Shemonah Esre, as the sun rises. Thank you Orly for acting as ambassador for our group!
At the more decent hour of eight o’clock, the rest of the group began to see the day. Nate had expressed a wish to take some final pictures in the morning, and many people still had to finishing packing. After washing, dressing, smiling, and eating, we left the holy Yerushalayim only slightly late, our usual. We were on our way to Machon Ayalon, the museum institution teaching about the Ha’gana bullet factory, which operated in secret during Israel’s fight for independence while under the British Mandate. We joined the Rifkin family who had hosted us for lunch in Jerusalem in celebration of their son’s Bar Mitzvah, and continued on to the Weitzman Institute with them to meet children from Sderot who have a diagnosis of trauma. On the bus ride between institutions, Sydney came to the realization that “we have met so many people on this trip!” For those of you who don’t know Sydney, she is constantly chatting with new people and making friends. Every place we went there were new friends to meet and it was always sad when we had to leave them. They all probably especially missed Sydney because she is always first to introduce herself, she is always smiling, and she always has something to laugh about with everyone. It is hard to foster new relationships with people so quickly; Sydney always does it so wonderfully effortlessly, even when we only have an hour to spend with our “new friends”. She was at it again at our next stop: The Weitzman Institute.
At the Weitzman Institute, we had lunch with the bar mitzvah families who were also sponsoring the day for a group of kids from Sderot who have been diagnosed with trauma. After seeing the botanical garden and using our own strength to lift us into the air, we had to say goodbye to Natalie. Our busy schedule did not allow enough time for it to sink in that we were all leaving the same day, but as we said goodbye to Natalie it began to hit us. For those of you who do not know Natalie, she is truly a ray of light. Her bright smile and sunshiny personality add so much lightheartedness to our group. This doesn’t prevent her from emotionally connecting to the people in the group, the places we have been, and the people we have met. She always has a clever question to ask in between telling witty jokes. I couldn’t allow myself to really think about Natalie leaving, because the group would really be lacking without her and yet we still had so much more to accomplish in the few hours we had left.
Our group, the families, and the kids from Sderot, went to a lecture and presentation of how glass is shaped and used in the labs. Unfortunately, the professor mostly spoke in English, and my Hebrew was pretty lacking as I tried to explain to the Sderot kids how glass is made from sand and when grains of sand are observed under a microscope, the moving molecules can be seen, which prove that glass can always become liquid. Three times the professor called up pairs of Sderot kids and SOS girls. First up was Laura, becoming the namesake of the first glass experiment we witnessed. For those of you who do not know Laura, she is incredibly inquisitive and driven. She could answer all the professor’s questions. (No wonder Ben Gurion University’s President was eager to meet our group, with Laura present!) She is not only book-smart, but also street-smart and intuitive; her knack for over-hearing surprises and catching every slip-up are just added bonuses. We all really enjoyed watching the tutorial, especially with Laura as the assistant. She even got to keep the glass pitcher he made her.
The group left Rechovot and headed back to Jerusalem for some shopping time. The Tesslers would be meeting us at the mall after dropping off Natalie, and Jenny remembered something very important on the bus: We never told to Tesslers our secret from our first Shabbat. For those of you who do not know Jenny, she is always plotting her next big joke, attacking people with ice cream on her face and borrowing lipstick from border-control officers. She is always a “bro,” joking around with everyone and always there when anyone needs a friend. Easy-going and fun-loving, she is great to have around in awkward situations because she can always come up with a funny story to get the laughs rolling. She knows how to pick her moments for great lines; instead of blurting out stories, she bides her time. I promised her we would tell all at our closing dinner, but unfortunately we ran out of time. So here is the untold story of Saturday afternoon in Szarvas, Hungary.
The camp organized for our group to meet with the International Group at camp, comprised of a few Israelis, some kids from Croatia, Hungary, and other countries. Most of them spoke English very well. It was already four in the afternoon, and the Tesslers went to nap before they were going to teach a class. I asked Nate to join the group on our walk to the botanical garden just to set a good example for the kids. (At the time, I did not realize I was being slightly hypocritical.) Nate is a natural leader and I knew immediately that if he decided not to join, half the group would follow. The Israeli madricha had organized a great program for the groups of kids to be able to meet each other and quickly have meaningful discussions. After a few rounds of name games, we spread cards with pictures across the grass and asked the group two pick tow cards: one representing their respective country/state, and the other representing what they hope to bring to the rest of their trip or what they hope to take away. We broke up into groups and discussed. I was very proud of our group for going along with the icebreakers and not trying to act “too cool for school” (as Aviva says), even though some of the kids from other countries were. In the end, most people began to open up right and have real conversations just as the groups were told to split. The international group’s madrichot had to leave and their group went down to the play by the river. Since we were in no rush, I brought our group to see the river too, passing by a wedding on the way. Somehow, we lost Nate in the process, all too excited by the idea of jumping into cold water on this sweltering day.
Two boys from the international group jumped in, and with Ben already walking around in board shorts, it didn’t take too long for him to follow. For those of you who don’t know Ben, he can easily be compared to the Big Friendly Giant. Towering over a foot taller than me, Ben always greets me with smiles from above. He was warm and welcoming from the start, and no matter how early we woke up in the morning, his smile never faltered as he said “good morning”. Eager to learn and understand everything the Rabbi and Aviva had to teach him, as well as all the people in all the places we went, it was always so easy to talk to Ben because he never stopped taking everything in. Eternally good-natured, he knew when to take situations seriously, and when to let loose and have fun. I really tried to take a lesson from Ben, attempting to convince the group to join Ben in the river. The water was deep, but gentle. Most of the group had changed into play clothes and seemed like desperately needed a refresher after actively participating in activities that required patience and concentration in sweltering heat. I knew that once Sydney could be convinced her shorts would dry on their own in the scorching heat, she would jump in and the rest would fall like dominoes. And so it happened. For those that were still dressed in Shabbat clothes, I came up with a simple solution: trade clothes with kids in play clothes that did not want to jump in. Julianna and I demonstrated with ease. For those who do not know Julianna, she may like to tell people she is shy, but I have witnessed her daring side on multiple occasions. Sweet and thoughtful, one might never expect Julianna to agrue passionately over the health and treatment of animals. You do not want to cross her when an animal is involved. However, her passion for animals does not compare to her compassion for people, and I am honored to have witnessed one of the most loving sister relationships I have ever seen, between Julianna and her younger sister Hannah. The care they give one another is remarkable, and if you think it would be a mistake to mistreat an animal in front of her, don’t even go near her sister. I knew Julianna was gutsy just from this first Shabbat by the river. In a matter of seconds, we ran behind a watchtower, switched clothing, and rejoined the group. Before anyone realized, Julianna was wearing my Shabbat dress and I was in the river. After they saw this, even some of the international group girls who had been acting “too cool” switched shirts and joined us. This was a once in a lifetime bonding experience, showing that people around the world can have serious situations to discuss, but they can also enjoy themselves and have pure fun together. There was a true understanding between the groups, as well as an understanding between my group and myself, and I will never forget this day.
True, it was the day before Tisha B’av, and swimming for fun in prohibited, but the swimming I encouraged was purely for the sake of fostering connections between Jews from all over the world, and what way to better commemorate the destruction of the Temple, which is said to be due to the Jews own hatred for each other and disunity, than for Jewish kids from all over the world to bond with mutual understanding! Similarly, the following day our group would be working hard to clean a cemetery in Debrecen. Even though dust might just fall again the next day, our acting of cleaning the synagogue as best we could was so meaningful to the Jews left in Debrecen and the Jews in Hungary who were told what we had done. Even though our hard work meant some people could not keep the full fast, the hope and warmth we brought to the Jewish community outweighs the merit brought by fasting. The pride I have for each member of my group can really be summed up by my impressions and experiences with them these two days, and since this was really the very beginning, they only made me more and more proud and honored to be their madricha. This is why it was so hard to say goodbye, and so hard to write this blog.
Back in Jerusalem, Romi, Jenny, and Julianna sat down in the mall to finish writing their blogs. For those of you who do not know Romi, she is the type of person that would rather give up shopping time than miss a moment of laughter on the bus with the group. Though she came on the trip having only just met the Tesslers and knowing no one else, Romi quickly befriended every person in the group. Her ease with people and the way she really cares for everyone made it seem like she had been friends with everyone for years. Romi became the group’s cherished claim to European etiquette. When her cycling skills were tested, she took her tumble with grace, never complain about the cuts on her beautiful face. I think Hannah described Romi best when saying how she loved when Romi comes down dressed beautifully each morning, with dried toothpaste as a daily accessory that she wears well. Romi is always good for a hearty laugh or a long chat, but she is especially good at doing both at the same time. I look forward to seeing her again, maybe in Ra’anana!
I walked around the mall with Melissa, trying to pass the time until dinner, and looking for presents for family members. For those of you who don’t know Melissa, she is that person who desperately searches for gifts for her loved ones instead of taking a little time for herself while on a trip that is all about giving to others. Giving to others is what she knows how to do best, constantly letting others go before her and compromising to ensure peace and tranquility within the group, except when it comes to taking her place in line for the bathroom—then she is scary! I never saw Melissa as shy or reclusive in any sort of way, as we instantly clicked with our sarcasm and attempts at monotone conversations, and we were able to open up to each other almost immediately on our long bus rides. She is so honest, caring, and easy-going and I look forward to a lasting friendship. We were successful in our hunt for presents and soon it was time to leave to mall and head to dinner, late of course.
Throughout the day, members of the group could be seen writing in their journals and consulting each other for advice. Rabbi Tessler had asked everyone to write a paragraph listing three experiences throughout the trip where we learned something about what it means to be a leader and take responsibility. Everyone had such beautiful and meaningful things to say, but I cannot remember each person’s words in detail. I do remember Rachel thanking us all for learning and being Jewish leaders in the memory of her grandfather. For those of you who do not know Rachel, she is pure joy and kovonah. She has tremendous pride and enjoyment of her family, never ceasing to entertain us with stories of her siblings, her grandmother’s travels, her grandfather faith and love of learning, and of course, her father’s cooking. Rachel is known for her bubbly personality and 60-word per second speaking ability, but when Rachel led us in learning Talmud in Vienna in honor of her grandfather, she took her time in explaining the significance of what we were doing, and how much it meant to her and would have meant to her grandfather. As she stood before the group and spoke, I saw before me a true Jewish leader.
As far as other experiences listed, I cannot remember what everyone said; Rabbi Tessler and Aviva collected the each paragraph at dinner after we finished reading them to the group. As an example, my list included the leadership of the Palmach and Hagana and the lone soldiers today that we learned about. Jews coming to Israel from all over the world to fight for the formation of the Jewish State and then continuing to fight in its defense. I compared this to the leadership of the participants of the Szarvas camp who chose to leave the comforts of their countrymen and join the international group, sharing experiences with foreign Jews and working to create a better understanding and unity within the Jewish community at large. In addition, each participant of SOS International who chose to spend three weeks of their summer vacation visiting broken Jewish communities and traumatized children and families in Israel shows amazing leadership and understanding of what it means to be a Jew and take responsibility for caring about the Jews of the world. The synagogue may become dirty in another week, and the cemeteries may never be fully repaired; the Jews that died in the Holocaust and in rocket fire will never come back, but the people we have visited will always remember the leadership and love of our group, and the hope our light brought to them. Meow each one of us will go home and continue our leadership, becoming ambassadors for the Jewish communities just by telling people about our experiences.
The Tesslers’ daughter and son-in-law joined us towards the end, as well as our Israeli guide’s fiancé, as we later found out. We wrapped up our final dinner by having each person thank you other member of the group. I wish I could remember what each person said, but the best I can do is remember the order: Orly>Adam>Ben>Nate>A.J.>Hannah>Romi>Melissa>Julianna>Rachel>Laura>Sydney>Jenny>Orly. Despite the reunions and well wishes, good food and good benching (we were so enthusiastic while benching that we broke a cup, and no one noticed!), as expected there were still onions in the air. The onions became a bit too overwhelming for Adam, who finally excused himself during the first round of hugging. For those of you who don’t know Adam, he is generally the group’s comic relief, while at the same time, he keeps us all in line. When it is bedtime, he enforces quiet hours, especially when bedtime occurs midday on bus rides and during museum movies. Adam is our cool kid who eagerly buys excessive amounts of water at the beginning of the trip at the best prices in Szarvas just to keep up with the trip regulations of 3 liters a day, even though this rule wasn’t strictly enforced until Israel. He is hypocritical in the best of ways, laughing at everyone who didn’t have money on them to buy water, and promising to never share with anyone, while in actuality he shared with everyone. He likes to keep his mitzvot on the down low, always humble and modest with a plethora of excuses for why other people deserve more of the credit. Adam was the first participant I met and the most consistently surprising throughout the trip. Thank you Adam.
As the onions continued to overwhelm more and more of us, including our resident tough-guy Hannah, and master chef Jenny, we made our way to the bus and said goodbye to Aviva and Romi who would be heading to Ra’anana. For those of you who don’t know Aviva Tessler, you are really missing out. Aviva Tessler represents everything that is good in this world. She cares for the Jews of the world as if they are her immediate family, and she cares for the kids in the group as if they are her own children. She is never upset at anyone and always ready to laugh with everyone. The handwork she put into to this trip on top of her commitment to Operation Embrace is truly inspiring. Aviva is one of the best role models I have ever known. Many tears were shed as we left Aviva and there was no way to properly thank her for all she has done.
We continued on to Ben Gurion Airport, and we were down to nine. Rabbi Tessler bravely continued with us, though his wife and daughter remained in Israel. For those of you who do not know Rabbi Tessler, I hope you get the chance to before he makes aliyah, or maybe you can visit him once he is living in Ra’anana. Rabbi Tessler would encourage anyone and everyone to visit him in Israel, because he is such a strong believe in the Jewish homeland and in the fact that all Jews must stick together in order for us to one day have peace. He is so encouraging to everyone to become active, lively, moral, strong, outspoken, well-spoken, and in general better people. It is such an honor to have been asked to work side by side with him to staff this SOS International trip.
I had to hug everyone goodbye (again) in the airport quickly, because I did not fly home with my group, and my family friend was waiting to pick me up. I did not have the chance to tell everyone how amazing they are, both as a group and as individuals, and how much they mean to me, so I have taken the time to do so now. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Aviva Sima Pollack. I am a junior at the University of Maryland. I enjoy writing. It has been my honor and pleasure to work with Aviva and Rabbi Tessler to staff this trip, as well as to work with each participant in helping to bring light to this world. Thank you all for the love you have given to all those around, within the group and without. This is what has truly made a difference in the world.
With love, AJ