The surprise meetings actually began before I even got to Israel. A week or so before my program began, my aunt and uncle visited Israel with my cousins, and at some point they visited an army base. An American lone soldier came over to them and struck up a conversation. It turned out that this soldier was a friend of mine who had graduated my high school a year before! Two of my cousins and the soldier took a picture together and sent it to us via WhatsApp, and thus I got to see a picture where worlds collided. Who would’ve thought that my cousins and a friend from school — people who had nothing to do with each other — would’ve randomly bumped into each other in the Holy Land?
Merriam-Webster defines “serendipity” as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” I certainly was not looking for people from my past in Israel, but when I got to Israel for yeshiva, I started to be struck by many serendipitous meetings.
On the first full day of yeshiva, the day after we arrived in Israel, we had a trip where we traveled up from Jerusalem to a few different sites, including the settlement of Mitzpeh Yericho. In Mitzpeh Yericho, our yeshiva group went inside of the town’s main shul and suddenly ran into boys and girls from a Bnei Akiva yeshiva and midrasha (seminary). I suddenly recalled that I had three close friends at the boys’ program, and whirling around, managed to find them and reunite—but I certainly hadn’t been expecting to see them in Israel so soon after I arrived!
It turned out they were on the same trip as us for the day, just timed half an hour earlier. I ended up running into them twice more, at Kasar El-Yehud (a site on the Israel-Jordan border), and at Nachal Kibbutzim (a region with a river that many groups do water hikes through). I found it hilarious that on my first day in Israel, I had run into three good friends three times!
But the day’s serendipitous meetups didn’t end there. As evening fell, we traveled to and saw some ruins in the northern city of Beit Shean, then went for dinner. As we got to the restaurant, I realized that I recognized a few of the girls eating there—they were classmates of mine from high school! It turned out that a few of them had come to Beit Shean from the nearby midrasha of Ein Hanatziv, while others from a program in Jerusalem were on their own school trip.
My first day in Israel — and already this country felt tiny. Seeing friends in Mitzpeh Yericho and Beit Shean, of all places?
Of course, I hadn’t known what would await that coming Friday. On Friday morning I went to the Ben Yehuda shopping promenade, which in gap year student parlance is known as “the scene”. I felt as if I couldn’t walk five feet without running into someone I knew — except I was seeing people from all sorts of different parts of my life. I said hello to high school friends, to classmates from elementary school, to former bunk mates in sleep away camp—many of whom I hadn’t seen in years. To some extent this was just as awkward as it sounds (“Hiiiii… Remember me?”), but for the most part, it was a lot of fun—and also a bit terrifying. It felt that half of the people I had ever met was there on that one short street…
I will admit, the best meetup that day was when I finally saw a very good friend from elementary school, who I hadn’t seen since ninth grade, on Ben Yehuda Street. We had been trying to meet up in New Jersey for a while, but I guess a country that’s around the size of New Jersey is the next best thing. We reunited, reconnected, and the next week I even hosted him at my yeshiva for Shabbat.
As the weeks began to fly by, the serendipity in the Holy Land continued. I’d be on a bus back from Modiin and there’d be friends from high school and elementary school sitting just a few rows away from each other. I’d be pushing my way through the Machane Yehuda market (the “shuk” is not a place for the fainthearted) and run into a friend from a summer program. On the night of Yom Kippur I went to learn at the Western Wall and saw a friend from wilderness camp also whiling the night away in Talmud study. On Hoshana Raba I went to a Western Wall morning prayer and saw my shul’s former rabbi for the first time since he made aliyah. On my way out of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, I’d run into friends from other programs making their way inwards (and once even ran into a friend I owed money to, which was quite helpful!). These are just a few of what feels like far too many examples.
A cynic could say that all of this is just coincidence—many of my friends are learning and living in Israel for the year, and I’m living in Jerusalem, which is quite central. Of course I’m going to run into all of these people! On the other hand, this is Israel. There is something special about this place to me as a religious Jew. Perhaps it all means something?
I could argue that there’s a slight downside, strange as it seems, to all of these serendipitous meetups. After all, it sometimes seems as if much of my life from America has simply picked itself up and plopped itself down here in the Middle East! Don’t I want to experience something completely different than what I’ve experienced before? How can I experience Israel and Israeli culture if I keep running into Americans I know?
But I see this serendipity in a positive way. Let me explain why.
Before I ever visited Israel, I had this vague idea of Israel being “the home of the Jews, our ancestral home”. I had learned about it in day school for years on end, and grew to love it based on the falafel we ate on Yom Ha’atzmaut and the pictures of the Western Wall in workbooks and the stories we read in Hebrew class. In other words, I knew Israel from a very detached, disconnected perspective, yet I felt like it was the place I was “meant to be” as a Jew. As nice as that may sound, in retrospect it seems dreadfully naïve in many ways. I basically saw Israel as similar to America, but with Jewish holy sites and the Arab-Israeli conflict, which I barely understood anyway. If I ever came to Israel, I thought, I’d feel perfectly at home!
When I visited Israel for the first time two years ago, for my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah (one of the cousins who met the lone soldier), it felt astonishingly different from what I had envisioned. Israelis seemed (to me, the timid American) sharper and more curt than I expected, getting around Jerusalem and other areas was pretty confusing even though I know both Hebrew and English, and no one had told me about the security wall surrounding Rachel’s Tomb… It was an amazing trip, but it both taught me some of the realities of Israel and reminded me that compared to America, Israel is a “foreign country”. It may be my “ancestral home”, but for better or for worse, I culturally feel like an American through and through, and a place like Israel would take time to get used to.
This past summer, I thought a lot about my upcoming year in Israel. Despite having visited there before, Israel still seemed like such a different beast. I’d have to learn the ropes about getting around, about currency, about the culture… How would it ever actually feel like home, in the definitive sense, not just some “religious home” that seemed to exist mostly in songs and in idealistic prayers?
That’s where the serendipity comes in. While the meetups are a very small element of my time in Israel—I’ve also made so many new friends, and seen many places in Israel, and learned in class much I never knew before—I still find them meaningful. When I started running into friends from Yeshivat Noam elementary school or Ramaz High School or Camp Dora Golding or somewhere else, seeing old friends in a marvelously new context, I began to feel more at peace. Most of us who have come here for the year are grappling with living in a place thousands of miles from America. We’re figuring out how the bus schedules work and the best things to do in our spare time and of course how to be independent—and it’s overwhelming, particularly in a country that takes a lot of time to get used to. But we’re also all running into each other, meeting up in serendipitous, magical moments, reuniting in Jerusalem or Beit Shean or Tel Aviv or elsewhere.
Perhaps that’s one of the wonders of Israel, a place where the Jewish people reunite after being separated for so long. Perhaps all of us have finally come home.