Elad Sela, 23, was back in Scotch Plains last week, almost eight years after his last visit to the area.
His first visit to the States was in 1998 when he was 12 and his whole class won a trip to Disney World in Florida. He returned at 16 as a saxophonist with the Arad Youth Wind Band touring the East Coast. Both trips were pretty wonderful, he said, but it was the two-night stay in New Jersey eight years ago that really had a lasting benefit.
He stayed with Sharon and Ron Rockman and their children, Danielle, then eight, and Elijah, who was four. The five of them formed such a bond that when the Scotch Plains family went to Israel last year — with Sharon and Ron heading up the family mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — they met up with Sela’s mother, a meeting, they said, that was like a reunion with long-lost relatives.
And now Sela is back — to do a medical internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The Rockmans met him at the airport when he arrived last week, and he spent his first few days with them.
“It’s good to see them again,” he said. “There was a break for a few years, but then we got back in touch, and it’s been great.”
The contact was renewed when another Israeli, Asaf Mendelowich, came to Scotch Plains two summers ago as a counselor. When the Rockmans asked if he knew Sela, he told them they were close friends. Last year, when the Rockmans were in Israel, Sela even introduced them to his girlfriend, Yael Arbal, who is studying dentistry.
Sharon said their family was mad about Sela when they met him at 16. She introduced him to people at the Central federation the day after his arrival with all the flourish of a proud aunt.
Amy Cooper, the federation’s associate executive vice president, was delighted by their connection. “This is what our ‘Living Bridge’ program is all about,” she said.
Person to person
Arad, Sela’s hometown, is twinned with the Central federation through the Partnership 2000 program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. In addition to providing financial support for projects in the town and nearby communities, the federation — together with 10 other federations in its P2K cluster — has also fostered person-to-person connections, with exchanges of artists, teachers, camp counselors, and so on.
It was through the P2K connection that Sela and his bandmates came to perform in the area in 2001. Now, deeply involved in studying medicine at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and still playing music with a university band when he can, he said, he still treasures the friendship formed through P2K.
The “Living Bridge” concept includes the notion that personal communication leads to better understanding than any media information could fuel. True to that, on his visit to the federation offices, Sela described life in Arad, the hopeful and the frustrating aspects of a population that includes large groups of fairly recent immigrants, and the ups and downs of life as a medical student.
Sela’s English is fluent, but he apologized for his accent, saying it was rustier than when he came as a teenager. “I know it’ll come back once I’m speaking English for a few days.”
He went straight from high school to college, rather than going into the army as most of his cohort does. “I’m on the academic reserve program,” he explained. “The army pays for you to study and then you serve as a medic with a regiment for five years — instead of the usual three years. It feels like a good way to join the army and really be able to help.”
Sela was chosen as one of 25 top students out of his class of 120 to do an internship overseas. He will be in the United States for three months, studying gastroenterology and radiology at Mount Sinai and general surgery at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, before returning to finish his remaining two years of college. It will probably be a long time before he comes back to the States, but the bond with New Jersey and the Central federation looks likely to stay strong.