As the Psychotoddler clan prepares for its first-ever (and probably last-ever, based on the cost) family trip to Israel this summer, I find myself becoming more and more nostalgic about my prior trips to Israel. I've been to the Holy Land 4 times, the last in 1996.
The first time was in 1980, and it was the second-best summer of my life. I say that only because the best summer of my life was in Israel two years later. Both summers were spent at Camp Sdei Chemed International, and in 1980, it was THE BEST way to get to know the country. I went with my friend Ian, whom I've blogged about in the past. The trip was almost an afterthought for me. Ian was over at my house, and remarked to my dad that he was going to this camp for the summer. My father, ever the Zionist, asked if I'd like to go too.
I was 13. I was just finishing 8th grade. I had never been away from home before. I had never been overseas. I don't know what made me do it, but I said yes right away.
A few weeks later, I was on a plane with about a hundred (seemed like a hundred, anyway) other boys leaving JFK and flying over the Atlantic. The boys came from all over the country, New York, Brooklyn, Queens (just kidding!). California, Chicago, Maryland, and we soon found out, from all over the world. We had kids from Dublin in our bunk.
This was a summer of firsts for me.
First time away from my parents.
First time in a sleepaway camp.
First time overseas.
First time getting to know Chassidim and Black Hatters (the camp was quite diverse).
First time dorming with people from California.
First time joining a choir and singing in front of other people.
First time keeping Shabbos completely.
First time singing zmirot (Shabbos songs).
The camp had an outstanding program. We went EVERYWHERE. Many places that, I'm sorry to say, are no longer accessible by Juden. We spent time in Jericho, and Bethlehem, and Hebron, and Rosh Hanikra, and Masada, and sleeping on the beach and scuba diving at Eilat, and dunking in some ice-cold mikvehs in caves, and wandering through waterfalls at Ein Gedi.
I developed such a connection to the land, and to the people. And to my camp mates. I kept in touch with a few for many years. Sadly, though, most of those connections have failed over the ensuing years. But a lot of what became me developed in that camp. My stage experience with the Sdei Chemed Boys Choir (playing, amongst other places, a military base in Yamit which was surrendered to the Egyptians shortly afterwards) helped propel me into my musical career, and introduced me to some big machers in the Jewish Music world. Virtually everything I know about Shmirat Shabbat I learned in this place.
I don't know what it's like now, but back then it was unbelievably inspiring. Yes, it was the second best summer of my life, but that's because two years later I went back as Staff.
I realize that 27 years have passed and I'll be traveling with some smaller kids, and I can't expect to do everything and go everywhere that I did as a teenager. But it says something about the power of the place that those days are burned so vividly in my memory.
Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael