As I carefully followed the news of the disengagement in Gush Katif last year, I ached for the loss of Israeli security, and for the homes, employment and lives that so many families were forced to give up. I felt connected as a Jew, but at the same time distant as a safe, content American.
A few months later I was asked to house three boys from Gush Katif who were to come to the United States to complete high school. All were from large families that were moving from place to place; they were athletes who had played together for a school team that no longer existed. Would I be willing to open up my home and my life – to have three total strangers join my household? We held a family meeting and the response was unanimous. How could we say no? Two weeks later they arrived at my door, and thus began our family’s bond with Yedidya, Barak and Yosef.
Upon meeting our new guests, it was quite apparent that their ordeal had had a dramatic effect on them. Yedidya gave me a framed picture of Gush Katif at sunset on the last evening before the withdrawal. This was one of thousands of pictures he had taken. He had albums and albums, and a slide show he’d created that depicted scenes far more vivid and intense then anything I’d seen in the media.
He reviewed, house by house and with tears and anger, the families of his former community. He showed me news articles that relayed how he had gone from community to community speaking about the injustice, hoping to prevent what they never really believed would happen. A picture of his former house was framed and placed next to his bed.
Yedidya was the most vocal of the boys, but all three were visibly pained and disoriented at the loss in their lives. They spoke about their mothers packing and unpacking, their jobs and financial security and self-worth suddenly gone, their lonely and confused siblings. They spoke about the many children who wound up in mental institutions in the months that followed, the promises that were broken, and their lack of respect for the politicians and the army.
These teenagers had minimal knowledge of English when they came. I was quite skeptical as to how they would manage taking high school-level courses in English. The school was adamant that they had to adjust to the regular program because there were no funds for supplemental teachers – no funds, in fact, for any extras. Yet people came forward to help and the boys more than managed. Neighbors tutored, supplied appropriate clothing in abundance, and tendered invitations for Shabbat meals and friendship.
My own family rose to the occasion in an unbelievable way. My elderly dad, who lives with me, helped the boys read and speak English. Our Gush Katif guests now know many old-time phrases with a distinctive Bronx accent. My own boys helped acclimate the Israelis to the American schedule – far more school than they were used to from Monday through Friday, and what do you do with that big Sunday break?
My daughter, Ilana, made sure to learn what each boy would and would not eat, shopped for me, and cooked numerous spicy meals in big hefty pots and pans. In fact, the boys had recipes sent from Israel to make sure Ilana knew how to make their favorite dishes. We all made the effort to see their soccer games, and shared in their sadness when they lost the final championship game.
There were also added benefits for us. Dad had new friends and a new position. All of us improved our Hebrew to an extent I would never have imagined. We are now all much more educated on the situation in Israel, and much more sensitive to the very real ramifications that we have seen first hand. Ilana is now an amazing Sephardic cook. My children received a lesson in sharing and loving our fellow Jews that surpassed anything taught in a classroom.
Yedidya, Barak and Yosef have returned home for the summer. My house is much quieter. The phones are not ringing as often and the stream of constant visitors has stopped. My kitchen and credit card are taking a well-deserved vacation.