Rabbi Shawn Zell remembers his Grade 10 experience vividly, even though it took place 50 years ago.
Zell, a native of Winnipeg, spent the year in Israel attending a boarding school called the Hadassim Children and Youth Village, along with 18 other Canadian and American young people. It was 1968, one year after Israel’s crushing victory over the combined armies of its Arab neighbours, and the mood in the country was euphoric.
There was unbridled optimism in the air, the feeling that anything was possible, Rabbi Zell recalled fondly.
For Zell and his Canadian contemporaries, it was a time to embrace their Judaism and create greater bonds with the State of Israel, all while getting credits towards their Canadian high school diplomas.
Zell and the others were among the first young Diaspora Jews to spend a year in Israel on a sponsored program – in their case, one organized by Canadian Hadassah-WIZO. Although decades have past, he still keeps in touch with some of the other participants and on June 27, most of the group, along with their spouses, children and other family members, will gather in Israel for a 50th reunion.
They will meet at Hadassim, which is located near Netanya, to have dinner, reminisce and see if they can still recognize each other after the passage of so much time.
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“I think it’ll be a bunch of alter-kackers looking at each other, saying, ‘I wouldn’t recognize you,’ ” he said.
Rabbi Zell, who serves as the spiritual leader of Tiferet Israel Congregation in Dallas, said his experience in Israel left indelible marks on him. Although he came from a proudly Zionist family, being in the country only reinforced those feelings and even strengthened his attachment to Judaism.
“I came back with Israel fever,” he said, “more knowledgeable, even more Jewish.”
A few years after his return, he took advantage of an offer to study at a new school for educators in New York and was later ordained as a rabbi.
All the while, he has remained in touch with a few of his buddies from the trip.
Of the 16 Canadians who were there with him, seven were fellow Winnipeggers, although he did not know any of them before he left. They were joined in Israel by three Americans.
I came back with Israel fever.
– Rabbi Shawn Zell
While in Israel, the group were housed in dormitories, with two Canadians and two Israelis per room.
It was a great way to meet Israelis and see the country, Rabbi Zell recalled, adding that he still keeps in touch with his roommate from Halifax, Lance Webber, and an American, David Klein, among others.
With no parents to monitor them, the boys took advantage of the situation.
“We were doing a lot of horsing around,” Rabbi Zell recalled, and their schoolwork suffered, as a result.
But being on their own in a new country provided plenty of opportunity to develop their independence – they thought nothing of taking a bus into nearby Tel Aviv to wander around.
On Shabbat, the Canadian kids organized their own services on campus, without adult supervision.
Rabbi Zell has lots of memories of that experience, including the time the group was called to attend a Hadassah event that was headlined by former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Rabbi Zell still has the photo, cut out of a magazine he found back in Winnipeg, of he and the others posing with Ben-Gurion.
We will see one another, rekindle friendships and share memories.
– Rabbi Shawn Zell
When he got the idea to organize a reunion a year ago, he wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But so far, the response “has been much better than I thought. I didn’t think I’d be successful contacting people after 50 years,” he said.
One respondent is a professor of physics in Ohio, another is a dentist in Vancouver, a third ended up living in New York. Some made aliyah to Israel.
Rabbi Zell expects 13 of the original group of 16, along with their family members, to attend the reunion, bringing the total number to more than 30 people.
“We will view Hadassim through mature eyes. We will see one another, rekindle friendships and share memories. Most of all, we will introspect as we ask ourselves how our year in Hadassim played a role in our lives,” Rabbi Zell said.