Last summer, as a high school student traveling with a group in Israel and Poland, I experienced more raw emotion than I have ever felt before. With horror, I walked through the ruins of Birkenau. With fear, I ran for shelter from incoming rockets. With dread, I learned that my dear counselor was being deployed in Gaza.
However, amidst the desert of pain and terror, I encountered an oasis of decency and kindness in the unlikeliest of places.
It was the last day of our hiking chavaya (experience). We were supposed to hike from the Kineret to the Mediterranean Sea on a trip called yam l’yam (or, sea to sea) but due to the seemingly endless stream of rockets being fired into Israel, our hike was modified so that we started on Mount Gilboa and ended in the Kineret.
Thankfully, I had remained healthy the whole trip, evading the stomach virus and the equally potent Bedouin food poisoning, both of which had sidelined most of my friends. But on the last day of the hike, I woke up sick. Really sick. And, lucky for me, the temperature outside had swollen to a muggy 105 degrees by noon.
The bus dropped the group off at the trailhead, and then transported a couple of counselors and me to the ending spot of the hike, a small, woody patch next to the Kineret. After an unbearable half an hour outdoors, cooking in the mid-day heat and humidity, my counselor coaxed me into walking to the nearby convenience store to see if I could sit down inside.
The store reminded me of a bodega. It was small and run-down but air-conditioned, with packaged goods lining the walls and a sliding-door refrigerator whirring in the corner. A radio on a desk played acoustic music and a middle-aged man, presumably the storeowner, was in the midst of a heated phone-conversation. The words of both the music and the man did not sound like Hebrew.
The man quickly got off the phone and stood up from his threadbare office chair to introduce himself. In my state of stupor, his name didn’t register and I still don’t remember it. My counselor then explained to him in Hebrew that I was sick and wanted a place to sit down. He turned to me with a look of concern and insisted in broken English that I rest in his chair. I gratefully accepted.
I dozed off for a while, maybe a few hours, and when I woke up, kids from my tour group were streaming in and out of the store buying ice cream and chocolate milk after their arduous hike. I looked up to see the storeowner and a young man, who couldn’t be more than a few years older than me, making the transactions. I soon realized that I had slept in the space behind the cash register with my head on the store counter, which forced the storeowner to awkwardly contort his body in order to complete his sales. Embarrassed, I stood up and muttered an awkward, “slichah.” The man turned around and smiled sensitively, motioning for me to keep sitting.
Eventually, the hiking group convened for lunch outside. I told the man that I could join them if he wanted to have lunch, but he would have none of it. He then offered me anything in the store for free, noting that the ice cream was especially good. I declined, but after he insisted again, I weakly accepted a bottle of water.
Then we started talking. Holding back tears of pride, he told me that his eldest son was studying engineering at the University of Indiana and that it was always his own dream to study in America. When he said this, my eyes welled up as I too was overcome with emotion.
Last summer, I went to Israel an idealist and returned a pragmatist. I finally came to grips with the harsh reality of the Conflict, and I realized that my dreams of a two-state solution in the near future were just that—unrealistic and impractical dreams.
I do not wish to translate my experience into a political view—that would be quixotic and myopic. Had our conversation drifted to Israeli politics—thankfully, it did not—I suspect that we would have strongly disagreed with each other. Ironically, I would never have met this man—this kind, warm mensch of a man— had Hamas not been launching salvos of rockets into Israel every day, forcing us to abandon our original hiking itinerary.
However, my brief but stirring encounter with the Arab shopkeeper restored my hope. At my lowest and most vulnerable moment, he cared for me with a kindness and decency that I had never before encountered from a stranger, Arab or Jew. I realized that, at the core, the two of us were no different.
While the events of last summer have permanently shaped me, I will forever cling to the memory of that sultry July afternoon with the hope that one day, the Conflict will be over. As David Ben-Gurion said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”