My 93-year-old neighbor kisses me on the cheek and blesses me to take care of myself. His faded blue eyes lock into mine. His voice softened by surviving the Holocaust, sweating in the factories, establishing a family and handing out smiles to everyone he meets…his words tug at my heart. He reminds me once more to put on socks because my feet will get cold only wearing sandals. Words such as appreciate and love and take care tumble out of my mouth, attempting an appropriate goodbye. I blink back tears and giggle uncomfortably, knowing how much I’m going to miss moments like this in Haifa.
Shelach (של״ח) stands as an acronym for שדה, לאום, חברה (field, nation, society) but many teachers in Shelach frequently divide it into שיעור לחיים (lesson for life). Working with teachers and students in special education schools, religious, secular, and boarding schools for youth at risk, I learned much more that I ever taught. I took groups all around the country teaching them about history, geography, and the importance of caring for the environment, with the intention of cultivating their appreciation for living here in Israel. They took me to fascinating questions, pop music, hilarious stories and pride in being Israeli, teaching me about patience, diversity and tenacity. I took them to see water in the middle of the desert and they took me to see selfhood in the middle of peer-pressure. I took them to historic places, playing out the stories from the Tanach to help them relate. They took me to their favorite hummus restaurant, playing cards on the table while we waift. I led leadership seminars and weekly outdoor training programs. They led dance parties and group cheers. Forming bonds with these students developed my understanding of the variance of diversity in Israel. Forming bonds with them developed me as part of the diversity.
I grab a few boxes outside of Rambam, the center for religious life in Neve Shaanan, Haifa. On Thursdays, the high school students distribute food to families facing hunger throughout Haifa. I stop by my adopted family to steal a few hugs and an apple. I hand them a thank you letter and gift for all the lessons and Shabbatot they have provided and apologize for any errors in my Hebrew. Twelve eyes on me as the acknowledgment is read. Hedva shakes her head. Not one error. I blink and giggle. She tells me how much I have given to them, inspired them and transformed them as a family, that this family and this home will always be open to me. A pause. A blink. “So when are you coming to visit us again already?”
I blink and giggle saying bye to some of the Shelach teachers. I blink and giggle because it’s impossible to share my appreciation for the pearls and gems they have filled my pockets with. I blink and giggle because it’s unfeasible to look them in the eye and say that they have shaped me, that they have deeply impacted me. I blink and giggle because they joke about how Talya could sell her soul to study law and then with a smile tell me how proud they are that I exist and if only there were more of me in the world. I blink and giggle saying that I wouldn’t have been able to do anything this year without their help and deeply appreciate their assistance writing up my touring material. I blink and giggle quickly saying “tov, yallah, todah.”
Haifa has stolen my heart. Haifa snatched my hear up when I was checking out at the supermarket and the Arab cashier prohibited me from buying the more expensive yogurt when there was a sale on the other brand. Haifa took my heart during one of her sunsets on the Mediterranean talking with Limor. Haifa swiped it when tutoring Nina in English and hearing her stories from the Soviet Union. Listening to her fire blaze as her smiling eyes relive her childhood memories and frown into darkness describing the circumstances under communism. One day she blinks and tells me that she’s “getting used to me.” Another time she mentions that she’s never heard anyone speak about Judaism the way I do. So by the time I have to wave goodbye to Haifa and my weekly lessons with Nina, I just can’t stop blinking.
My roommate Chen and I discuss an alternate universe where we don’t meet or we don’t share the same room. The sand falling through my fingers and the waves tickling my toes find this hard to believe. It’s just all too whole, too pure and too lovely to feel random. It’s just too stubbornly passionate to fall into a folder of one of the many options. I blink telling Chen how this is just the beginning of our friendship but I blink again grinding my teeth that this is the end of an era. The grand finale of my two years of Sherut Leumi. The closing scene of the beautiful novel I just don’t want to put down. My free bus pass is about to expire. My bags are packed. These two years were my whole life and in a blink, they take a bow.