MITZPEH RAMON, Israel – I went rappelling once in my life before Wednesday morning.
Check that. I attempted to go rappelling once in my life before Wednesday morning. Long story short, I panicked and wouldn’t go over.
Today I did. Ramon Crater was phenomenal. Rappelling was exhilarating. The views were remarkable. And it wasn’t close to the most interesting, bizarre, and slightly surreal experience I’ve had in a long time.
In the group next to us on the ledge was a large group of American school-age kids, and one of them asked if we had any extra bottles of water. We did so we happily offered to him. Being the friendly, chatty journalist I am, I wondered where he was from. “Detroit,” he said.
“Oh. I’m from there originally,” I said. “From Farmington Hills.”
He’s from West Bloomfield – neighboring suburbs.
“What school?” I asked.
“Hillel Day School,” he said. “It’s our eighth-grade trip.”
My jaw dropped. I graduated from Hillel Day School in 1989. My eighth-grade trip was to Toronto, a fabulous city to be sure, and one I’ve spent my entire life to that point going to at least once a year to see family. These kids get Israel. Not jealous. I swear.
Another boy heard me say Detroit, and I recounted my graduating class year.
“Did you have Mrs. Basse?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sixth-grade Hebrew.”
“That’s my grandmother,” said Ammi Rotberg. His mother, Leemor, graduated from Hillel in 1988 with my sister-in-law.
I said: “She taught me backgammon. Talked a lot of trash.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s her.”
This led to the repeated question of “Do you know my parents?” I didn’t know any others, though I did meet Lily Liss, the niece of 1991 graduate Ari Kohen, a friend and classmate of my wife’s.
I found out that Hillel has now been doing this trip for 17 years, obviously starting well after my time at the school. Still not jealous.
This is one in a million. At least; you can’t calculate the odds of this. This just doesn’t happen. How am I going to run into people from the school I graduated from 34 years ago, 6,000 miles from home, on the edge of a 220 million-year-old erosion cirque that is hundreds of feet deep? (Don’t worry, we only rappelled 15 meters.)
My Jewish world gets smaller by the day. The kids were awesome to chat with and incredibly pleasant. I’m not sure we were at that age. Their shrieks of terror and amusement at going down the cliff face were the same as mine – only I kept mine on the inside.
The trip so far
While we’re on the subject of Hillel Day School, much of what I learned about Israel is stuck in the back of my mind, coming to the fore when it matters most – being in the moment of it.
Teachers like Mrs. Basse talked about how you could just sit back and float in the Dead Sea. And it turns out they were right. The slathering on the mud was a blast too, but just bobbing around at 1,500 feet below sea level was simply insane, in the best possible way.
The stories we were told on top of Masada (after the tram ride; no hiking at noon in 100-plus degrees) matched up to what we were taught.
It was as advertised, but even after a lifetime of seeing pictures of the Old City and the markets, those don’t do it justice. It’s the definition of a feast for the senses: the sights, smells, tastes and sounds are overwhelming in the moment. But with the benefit of time – even 24 hours – it allows some reflection and introspection that really help underscore what being here is all about.
For the kids I met that are going through this – whether first-timers or Israel veterans – take it all in, and enjoy the ride.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m jealous of them.