Two days before I flew back to Boston, Masa Israel sent me an email informing me about an alumni retreat to be held at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut during the weekend of July 25th-27th. I was on the phone with Cassie at the time for our usual Thursday night phone call and asked her if she knew Falls Village since she was born and raised in Connecticut. She didn’t and I wondered if I should still apply. I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I filled out the application and received the acceptance email just under weeks later. I still wasn’t sure if I should attend, but after finding out that Masa would cover transportation to and from New York and dealing with the barrage of anti-Jewish sentiments I had been seeing on my News Feed and from both online and television news outlets, I paid the registration fee, discussed transportation with the man responsible and began to pack. And, as I have known from all the love Masa had given me during my ten months in Israel, their work in America is filled with just as much love.
Traveling these days tends to be a bit chaotic, but the alternative—a weekend in Boston with no kids to babysit—is quite boring. I have traveled by myself since 2009 so that I can see things and places—where the leaves, grass, rocks and buildings are riches that must be praised and appreciated. I travel so that I can think about a world that is larger than myself and much more glorious than the media will depict. But most importantly, I travel to new places so that I can fill my soul with new memories, notice the greatness not only in big things, but in tiny things like the pebbles on paths or in the smiles of old and new friends.
With the go-ahead to take the train to New York, I snagged the last business class ticket on an Acela train. I picked an early train since I’ve traveled on Amtrak before and it was delayed by two hours both to and from Connecticut three years ago, so I wanted some breathing room in case there were problems. The experience was nothing short of incredible—my own seat, Wi-Fi, no talking since I was in the Quiet Car and I made it to New York in less than four hours. I still had two and a half hours before I had to meet up with both Masa staff and alumni, so I was able to walk around for a few hours and grab a quick lunch. Once I finally made it to the Grand Hyatt, I spoke with Butterfly as we waited for more people to show up. I got to see Allie, Gili from ITF-Netanya, Sarah A. and Daniel from ITF-Be’er Sheva and started to talk to the Masa staff and other Masa alumni. After the bus eventually showed up, it was off for a long ride to Falls Village. I enjoyed catching up with Sarah A. and Daniel, in addition to Bari and Tyler from ITF-Be’er Sheva. Our conversations had been limited to the seminars we all had to attend under Israel Pathways during our ten months in Israel, so it was a nice change to be able to talk at a seminar that wasn’t required. After getting to the retreat center, catching up with old friends, meeting new friends and receiving room assignments, we did some ice breakers and then prepared for Shabbat. I have never kept Shabbat, but the few dinners I went to in Israel that weren’t at required seminars had always been special. This Shabbat dinner was lovely and it made me yearn for the few optional Shabbat dinners I attended in Israel. I and the other people at my table clinked our glasses together in the air as a toast to new friends, but also to the men and women in the Israel Defense Forces who were not able to enjoy Shabbat, however they do it.
Saturday was much more focused on discussions. After breakfast, I attended a discussion where each person of the small group spoke about how they viewed Israel, went to a different discussion about how life had changed since being back in America, headed to lunch (where I got to meet the two Fellows from ITF-Netanya who were in my school last year!), spoke with a Masa staff member about my experience in Israel, took a nap, listened to a panel of the alumni who spoke about their lives since being home from Israel, attended a discussion about eco-friendly Kashrut (even though I don’t keep kosher) and then went to dinner. After dinner, I waited around for the bonfire to start. That was nice. The sky was so bright with the stars, it made flashlights unnecessary. I looked up at the stars with my thoughts again traveling towards the IDF and wondering if they were okay. I took a small sense of comfort in knowing that as different as we are in nationalities and however Jewish we may deem ourselves to be, that we were looking up at the same sky and wanting peace for Jews everywhere.
Sunday was long. After packing and breakfast, we voted on the activities we wanted to do. With it raining, I elected to go to a yoga session. After yoga, I decided to go with one of the Masa alumni and a farming Fellow at the retreat center to visit part of the farm where the chickens and goats were held and was able to sample raspberries and blueberries straight off the plants they grew from. We made it back within minutes of more rain, had lunch, a final discussion and then hopped onto the bus that would take us to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The ride was shorter this time without Friday’s traffic and getting to JFK took no time at all. I said goodbye to my friends and then made my way to Terminal 8 since I had a flight home on American Airlines. Masa had booked my flight home, so imagine my surprise when I printed out my boarding pass and saw that it was First Class. Of course, it’s hard to reap the benefits of First Class on a flight that’s forty-five minutes, but I still appreciated being able to go through Security faster, being the first person on the plane (after the flight was delayed), having the most amazing seat ever and being the first person to leave the plane. As I made my way back home, I didn’t even remember that it been just one day under a month since I had been back from Israel. But thanks to Masa, it was like I never left.
I don’t know how many of us Masa alumni were sharing cabins at the retreat center; so many people busting through the hallways and pondering at what to pick at the salad bar. So many young twenty-somethings that names seemed to lose their punch and when one person was snagging extra bottles of white wine for the dinner table, others were passing around the challah.
This weekend embraced a spirit of camaraderie while the chirping of the birds rang through our ears. The children of some of the Masa staff were quite like wild things—slithering like snakes on the ground and running from place to place with grins as wide as the Cheshire Cat, with energy to spare. The little girl had enough energy, in fact, to ask me for help with fetching her some scrambled eggs at breakfast while the baby girl didn’t reject me holding her or leaving kisses on her cheeks. And while the preference of many people may have been to be only with adults, I found peace in being around the children. Bursting through the doors like shooting stars, the children breathed light and wonderment at the world. Just like I and my Masa comrades did while we were in the land of milk and honey quite some time ago.
Masa first entered by life when I was twenty-three, unemployed and depressed. In my “One Year Ago” post, I recounted of how I signed up for the Israel Teaching Fellows program after consuming the array of cocktails due to the event called Get Back To Israel! having an open bar. Since that night twenty-one months ago, there have been numerous phone calls from Masa. More emails than I know how to count. Massive amounts of paperwork. Loads of logistics. Seminars galore. A leadership seminar that patched up the cracks in my soul. Facebook pictures and tweets favorited. And lots and lots of love.
After almost two years of Masa’s presence in my life, I am still amazed by their luminosity. In the sunshine, Masa continues to contain a special mix of liveliness and ideas. They also have the energy of an entire cheerleading team.
Masa has allowed Jews from all over the world to connect and enables them to talk to one another about Israel without starting from scratch. Masa’s push to get me to go back to Israel after Birthright two years ago happened with intensity, like ON FIRE intensity. Masa’s passion is synonymous with a match lit aflame.
But when Masa staff and their alumni hit the sheets at night, like always, they awake radiant and dazzle again. They may be as intense as a match, but their hearts are more like the sun’s understudy.