The first time I went to Israel was on a summer program when I was 15. It was obigatory back then to spend time on a kibbutz, and my group went to spend a few days on a religious kibbutz to learn about the work they did there and more importantly, to be exposed to the kibbutz family feeling.
Sadly, tragedy struck. One of the teens on the kibbutz was helping a special needs child onto a bus and was struck by a car and killed.
The whole kibbutz fell into mourning. The teen was viewed as everyone’s child, and the entire community was submerged into a palpable grief.
My fellow teen friends and I felt sad — and awkward. We were outsiders looking in. We didn’t know this girl and while we felt for the kibbutz, we also felt like we were intruding on a personal moment of anguish. Yet we also appreciated the kibbutz’s sense of unity, how one family’s child was everyone’s child. We had never experienced anything like that before.
Little did I know back then that I’d be making aliyah with my own family 26 summers later. My family and I have left our beautiful life in California, and while our material goods are on a ship near the Panama Canal, we have embarked on a cross-country trek, seeing America before we say goodbye in a few weeks to come “home.”
We had just spent a few days at Zion National park in Utah, a majestic landscape where we hiked miles through a river, saw weeping rocks and cooled our feet in emerald pools. Of course, we joked how we were stopping at the “other Zion” on our way to our true Zion. Each day as I let the holiness of nature wash over me, I whispered extra prayers into the mountains for the safe return of Eyal z”l, Gilad z”l and Naftali z”l.
Yesterday we were on our way from Zion to Bryce, another National Park, marveling at the beautiful creeks, verdant hills and grazing horses, when I saw on my spotty Facebook feed the news that the boys were found, and not in the way for which we had so fervently prayed. The news hit me in my gut, and I quietly sobbed while my husband drove and my kids watched movies in the backseat.
I felt neither here nor there. Not “here” in Utah, far from any home. My broken heart was already east while we were in the west. I cried for the beautiful, stoic mothers who now would have to mourn sons; with the friends in our new home in the Efrat (close to where the boys were taken and found) who I have been following diligently from afar online as they have not only fed hundreds of searching soldiers night after night, but have done so with such enthusiasm and kindness; and with my nation who is in shock and grief.
But I’m also not “there” yet. I still have shielded my younger children from this tragedy…because I can. I can let them have their American slumber a little longer, because their new reality will come soon enough and bring them new freedoms and new adventure but also new pain. I still went hiking with my family, shlepping my broken heart instead of a backpack, through the otherworldly red and white hoodoos (yes, that’s a word) of Bryce, down into the canyons filled with G-d’s unique artistry and struggled to climb back up again. In Israel, life would have stopped, but in America, just for a little longer, I forged ahead. My surroundings were surreal, and so is a world where sweet boys are kidnapped and murdered on the way home from school because they are Jews.
On our trip, we keep bumping into other Jews, and especially Israelis and we share that we are on our way to our aliyah. Yesterday, in the canyon, we said hello to a fellow religious family from Teaneck, strangers with whom we shared the knowing nod of our pain. We met an Israel couple on their honeymoon, but said nothing. If they didn’t know, I didn’t need to tell them and ruin their day. Like my children, they would know soon enough.
I was suddenly flooded with the memory of that girl who died on the kibbutz. As an American teen, I felt like an outsider to the grief then. But now I realize that the Jewish people are one big kibbutz family, and today we are all in mourning. The boys were all of our boys, and we are woven together in a tapestry not only of pain but of fierce togetherness. The Israeli people are at the center and those outside Israel are at the fringes, but we are part of a whole.
As my family continues to drive across America for the next weeks, to see more wonders and tourist traps and family and friends, we are driving closer to the center of the fabric, to its heart, to be finally “there” when our flight will take us home.