I can’t think of the summer of 1985 without wincing. Being 16 and shy, with the kind of fine hair that went limp in dry desert heat, and with only one (miserable) month of overnight camp as my experience away from home, I wasn’t bound to enjoy every moment of a six-week teen tour of Israel.
Yet somehow curiosity got the best of me on a frigid evening last month, and I dragged myself to a Midtown restaurant for the first-ever reunion of Group 10, United Synagogue Youth’s Israel Pilgrimage tour. “What made you come tonight?” I asked one former teen traveler, then another. “What is it that you remember most vividly from the trip?” One woman turned the tables, questioning me.
I hesitated. Should I tell her how my digestion never adjusted to the Israeli diet in the whole six weeks? How embarrassed I was to confide this problem to the handsome Israeli medic, who advised — as a cure for almost everything — “more water.”
But after I left the restaurant that night, I realized: First, that this USY trip to Israel likely (albeit indirectly) inspired my career as a chronicler of Jewish life. And second, that I owed this experience — and my college semester at Hebrew University of Jerusalem — to two people whose names I couldn’t recall. That spurrred me to do some research and learn that those two people, Abraham and Beatrice Rosen, had been longtime members of my childhood synagogue in Flushing, Temple Gates of Prayer, before they passed away more than 30 years ago. Without children of their own, the Rosens bequeathed a large portion of their estate to a fund that would send synagogue youth to Israel, a country they may have visited or not. No one remembers much about the Rosens. Abraham may have made his money in real estate — or not. Beatrice was quiet by one account, outgoing by another.
What we do know is of their lasting impact on this earth. Rabbi Albert Thaler, the longtime spiritual leader of Temple Gates, will be leading yet another family trip to Israel next month, including 18 children and teenagers, and the $3,000-per-person price tag will be covered by the Rosens’ generosity. They will join the hundreds of us who have enjoyed this gift since 1982, when the fund was established.
One former recipient, who asked that her name not be used, and who is now 25 and works for a major Jewish cultural organization in New York, recalls her awe when sirens signaled the start of Shabbat in Jerusalem. “Everyone stopped to take notice of that,” she says. If not for the assistance from the Rosen fund, the woman says, “I know my family wouldn’t have been able to go.”
I don’t imagine my parents would have indulged in this sort of summer experience if it hadn’t been subsidized. It was a luxury beyond our imagining, beyond what the students at my public high school in Queens had planned for the months of July and August, when some worked at day camps or local ice cream parlors. But my parents did not easily let opportunities slip by their children.
And I know that my life’s trajectory would have otherwise bypassed many Jewish experiences and adventures. After the program, I never ate another cheeseburger. After the program, I couldn’t think of Shacharit, the morning service, without recalling the desert at dawn, our voices earnest but unimpressive in the vastness of the world, the boys’ tallits flapping in the summer wind.
If not for the Israel trips, would I even be talking with my children, Joel, 7, and Talia, 9, about current events in the Middle East, about the recent harassment of Israeli girls and women by a lunatic fringe of religious men? I think of the Rosens, and how they’ve reached yet another generation, when Talia astutely connects the upcoming holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the sex-segregated buses common in some religious communities in Israel, where women are expected to take seats in the back of the bus. And I think of the Rosens again when Joel asks, in an honest, sweet voice about these men who spit on 8-year-old girls, “Have they ever read the Torah?”
When I reach Rabbi Thaler, he calls the trips “our own Birthright program,” referring to Taglit-Birthright Israel, which launched in 2000, and has already sent 300,000 Jews on free trips to Israel. As Rabbi Thaler writes in a recent synagogue bulletin: “Would that the Rosens could know how much they achieved, how much good they have wrought and how enduring is their gift.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: email@example.com.