It was way back in January when my parents asked if I would be interested in extending my eighth-grade Schechter Israel trip for an extra week, the additional time to include several days in Chevron volunteering at the preschool gan. Of course they knew I would say yes— I had helped out
I realized that this wasn’t like a Sunday barbeque on my grandparents’ condominium balcony in Highland Park.
at the gan last year while my parents toured Chevron for a day. But this time I wouldn’t be returning to our hotel in Jerusalem. This time I would be staying alone in Chevron.
As the rest of the Schechter class prepared for a Sunday morning departure to the airport, my friend, Sarah, a new Olah from Chicago, met me at the Lev Yerushalayim Hotel. I said goodbye to my eighth-grade classmates and Sarah and I proceeded to the central bus station where we boarded the bus to Chevron. It took about an hour until the bus crossed from Kiryat Arba into the Jewish section of Chevron. Sarah had never been to Chevron before so my dad provided me with the instructions. I was to get off at the stop by the Maarat HaMachpela, walk into the Gutnick Center snack shop and call the preschool director to take me to the gan. Naturally, I didn’t follow Dad’s instructions and instead, got off at Beit Hadassah, confident that I would recall the way to the gan by memory after last year’s visit. I could only imagine what my parents were thinking when I woke them up at 2 a.m. Chicago time and told them that Sarah and I were lost.
After a few minutes of phone time, I tried to re-collect my bearings. I looked ahead into what seemed like an Arab neighborhood and then quickly decided to head back toward the bus stop. All the time, I kept peering toward the dusty side streets until I finally got to the point where the surroundings appeared familiar. That’s when I worked up the courage to ask the first person I saw, “Eich magi’im l’gan yeladim?” I must have understood his response because a couple of minutes later, Sarah and I heard the shouts of young children. I hustled to the next corner and there was thegan.
Chevron security director Yoni Bleichard met me downstairs and took my luggage to his office where he e-mailed my parents to let them know I had arrived. He brought me to the gan and I immediately began working with the preschool kids, reading stories, making Shavuot decorations, serving lunch and constantly improving my Hebrew. The children are so cute and friendly. The girls, especially, liked to play with my hair and would constantly surround me and pose for pictures. It was just the way I remembered it from last year. I handed out thirty packages of stickers which I had brought from Chicago. It felt good to bring gifts from the U.S. After school, Rebbetzin Batsheva Cohen from Chabad brought me to her house. She told me to take the baby stroller along with her four-year-old son and his two friends and walk to the Beit Hadassah to pick up the Cohen’s baby. We passed many Chevron residents along the streets, both Jewish and Arab, but I was already becoming comfortable traveling alone and remembered the way around without a problem. I returned to the rebbetzin’s house with baby Menucha Rachel and then helped prepare dinner.
After we finished eating, the Cohens showed me the apartment where I would be staying. My dad had told me that I would living at the bnei sherut girls’ dormitory with Israeli girls who were doing volunteer service in Chevron. But it turned out that there were no other girls there that week and I had the entire apartment to myself. I admit to being a little scared at first, but the building was located right next to the Cohens and the gan. Still, I could tell my parents were shocked when I called them at 4 p.m. Chicago time to tell them I was alone for the night.
The next morning, I arrived at the gan at 8:30. I saw some of the kids in the five and six-yearold class who remembered me from last year. But my favorite age is the three and four-year-old group and I was glad to have this assignment. The girls are so cute and friendly. The boys, of course, are completely wild, fighting with each other and pretending they’re in the army, but that’s the reality of life in Chevron which is surrounded by IDF soldiers ensuring that the Jewish community is safe.
After the gan closed for the day, I rode in the preschool van and went to Yoni’s house. Yoni and Rabbi Hochbaum were actually at my house in Highland Park last year and Yoni had told me that he had a daughter who was my age. Yoni’s daughter showed me around for a while and we made Shavuot treats for the soldiers stationed in Chevron. Every week, the community honors the soldiers with treats and pizza. I’ve seen ladies handing out tiny Tehillim books to the soldiers on my other visits. It’s obvious that the Chevron residents support and appreciate all of the soldiers.
After leaving the Bleichards, I returned to the Cohen’s house where I spent the next few hours on their rooftop patio cooking eggplants for dinner. As I prepared the food, I could hear Arab prayer calls bellowing loudly in the background. It made me realize that this wasn’t like a Sunday barbeque on my grandparents’ condominium balcony in Highland Park.
After dinner, I returned to my apartment and just relaxed on the bed as I listened to music and scanned for radio stations on my I-pod. I made sure to call my parents and let them know how the day went before finally falling asleep at midnight.
The next morning was Erev Shavuot. The gan was closed so Rebbetzin Cohen had me take her children to the Avraham Avinu playground. I began thinking to myself and felt proud and responsible, knowing that for the past few days the Cohens had entrusted their young children with me, an eight-grader, whom they had never before met. It’s such a different feeling being 5000 miles away from the overprotective atmosphere of the Chicago suburbs. As I watched the Chevron children playing and running through the streets and courtyards, I saw some of the boys and girls displaying the stickers that I handed out on Sunday. The kids were so cute and vivacious!
After bringing back the Cohen’s children, I got cleaned up and got ready to leave. There were just four days left in my one-week extension and I still had friends and family to visit in other cities. I put my stuff in Rebbetzin Cohen’s car and she drove me through Chevron’s winding streets to the Gutnick Center. Peering out of the window, I couldn’t believe that I had found the way to the gan on my own last Sunday. I know classmates who aren’t even allowed to cross busy streets near their homes. But in Israel, kids seem to grow up faster. It’s something I’ve noticed on all my previous trips.
We arrived at the Gutnick Center and waited for my family friend, Yahel, to drive me to Kibbutz Erez near Sderot for Shavuot. As we stood near the tree-lined grounds by the gift shop, I could see the Maarat HaMachpela just a few hundred feet in the background. I looked toward the old stone steps next to the ancient building. On our first visit to Chevron, my dad explained that those were the seven steps, beyond which Jews were never allowed to pray. Yet, I had been fortunate enough to have entered the Maarat HaMachpela two different times. I’ve even met a man that actually went into the cave in 1967.
As Yahel’s blue car pulled up, I thought about how Avraham purchased the caves and the very field upon which I was standing. I know that is why Jews still live here. I was glad that my parents, the Chevron community and the people from the Chevron Fund helped arrange my stay and I’m looking forward to my next visit to Israel and another chance to come to Chevron and work in the preschool gan.