On the first day of Succot we accumulated quite an eclectic group of individuals.
It started when my “yeshivish” daughter and son-in-law decided to come for the chag. We’re always thrilled when our married children come for Shabbos or a holiday.
Next, I received an email from an old high school friend. Her son is here in Israel on a one-semester program run by NIFTY for high school students. She wanted to know if he and a friend could join us for the holiday. (NIFTY is the reform movement’s youth organization.) We used to live down the street from them and I haven’t seen this boy in many years, but knowing his parents, I was confident that he grew up to be a fine young man.
A few days later my sister called to ask if she, her husband, and a guest of theirs could join us. The guest was the friend of the daughter of my sister’s friend in the states. He’s here for a college semester studying at Tel Aviv University and my sister described him as “conservadox”.
Two days before Yom Tov my Shappell’s chavrusa from last year and the one from this year called to ask if they too could join us. Though we were nearly out of sleeping space, I knew they’d be sleeping in the Succah so that wasn’t an issue and my wife always cooks for an army.
The crowd started gathering early Erev Succot when I went to pick the NIFTY boys up from a drop-off point in Latrun. Even though Isaac was now a strapping 6’2″, I recognized him immediately. Isaac’s friend Andrew grew up in Washington State in a rural town about an hour North of Seattle. (So rural, that everyone lives on about 5 acres!) In his high school, Andrew is one of 3 Jews in a student body of 4000.
When I showed Isaac and Andrew to their room I subtly mentioned that during the 25 hours of the Chag, we don’t turn on and off lights and other electric devices. Other than that we wanted them to feel comfortable and do as they pleased. Our hope was just to provide them with a nice Yom Tov experience. We weren’t looking to make them “frum”.
And indeed it turned out to be a wonderful Yom Tov. There was lots of great food, singing, and divrei Torah. The NIFTY boys didn’t join us in Shul, but they made a few Brachot, benched Lulav, and said Birchat Hamazon out loud with us. At one point I noticed that they were sitting in the living room writing something in a notebook. I didn’t feel there was any great need to say anything to them about it.
Whatever one might want to say about the reform movement, the program Isaac and Andrew are participating in is pretty impressive. They have ten hours of classroom instruction a day. In addition to their regular high school coursework they have 3 hours of Jewish history and 1-½ hours of Ulpan each day. The Jewish history is reinforced with tours of specific geographical areas they learn about.
Thursday night, after the Chag, the NIFTY boys, the Shappell’s guys, my son and son-in-law spent hours in and out of deep religious philosophical discussions. By the end of the evening the Nifty boys had accepted an invitation to join my Chavrusas at Shappell’s for a Shabbos.
The next morning Isaac told me he really enjoyed his stay, especially the conversations they had, as they don’t get to do much of that with their NIFTY group or back home with their other friends.
I learned from Andrew that his main goal in coming to Israel was to learn more about Judaism than he had been able to back in rural Washington. I felt that this was an opening for me to be a little proactive. So as they were leaving I gave them the book “Discover” by Dov Lipman, which answers questions about Judaism for teenagers.
On Sunday I got a call from Isaac’s mom telling me what a great time he had and commenting that he was unusually animated in describing his experience. I don’t know if this will end up being a mere footnote or a turning point in these boys’ lives, but either way I’m glad we provided them with a positive experience.