On their last morning in our home, our Israeli guests, two teenage boys, were cleaning up from breakfast. They returned the orange juice to the fridge and put the box of Cinnamon Life cereal back on the metal shelves along the wall. One of them said, “It feels like home, we know where everything goes.” And I thought to myself: mission accomplished.
Most of us want company to feel at home when they visit, but for these boys, my intention was greater than just being a welcoming hostess. It was my opportunity to pay forward all the hospitality that I’ve received from Israelis — all the times relatives, friends, and complete strangers went out of their way, inconvenienced themselves, housed me, and otherwise assisted me in Israel over the years.
I spent many Shabbatot with cousins who lived in Ramat Gan on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The parents were both working professionals yet they made time for outings and adventures with their young children in tow, such as visits to the extended family’s moshav in the Galilee or a Chanukah trip through the Golan Heights. On Sunday mornings the dad fought rush hour traffic to drop me off at the old Tel Aviv bus station for my return to The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I was studying for the year.
Elderly cousins who lived in a suburb of Haifa gave me my own bedroom with cable TV (a big deal in the early 1990s). I was always welcome to bring two or three friends with me. Sometimes I’d return late at night to find in my room a paring knife, napkins, and gorgeous bowl of fruit — tiny pears, persimmons, and grapes. They sent me back to school with homemade apricot jam; I savored it and didn’t share any spoonfuls.
The hospitality I received was not limited to home stays. There was the ceramics artist Danny Azoulay, who drove my once boyfriend, now husband, and me to the medical clinic when I nearly passed out from dehydration in his Jerusalem studio. Driving the wrong way on crowded Agrippas Street was memorable. Or the time when our son was sick and all I had to do was call my cousin who promptly drove into Tel Aviv, carrying her own thermometer, and took us to Ichilov Hospital.
So when my son entered high school at Golda Och Academy in West Orange and I learned that Israelis visit the school during their sophomore year, I immediately volunteered to host. I wanted to give our guests the personal attention that I had been a lucky beneficiary of, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
With my entire family (my husband and our two sons) excited to share Jewish life in New Jersey, I made up two beds in our guest bedroom. We bought lots of American junk food (Pringles and Oreos, anyone?) and prepared a large tray of the classic macaroni and cheese.
We were matched with two boys from Merchavim, a partnership community of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Oriyan and Ran were delightful — they were sweet, polite, made their beds every morning, and were grateful when I did their laundry, something I don’t do anymore for my 15-year-old son. For the whole week they were here I was happy to wake up early and pack two additional lunches, and my husband and I never complained about the late-night chauffeuring to pick them up at the end of their busy days, or to and from the Short Hills Mall to hang out with classmates and their Israeli guests.
They had a packed week of programming. They toured the Statue of Liberty and Lower East Side, celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut with teens from our community, met with students at Rutgers University, and saw “School of Rock” on Broadway.
They bought several pairs of Nikes from Foot Locker and claimed doughnuts from Dunkin Donuts tasted better than sufganiyot.
On one of our car rides I asked them what stood out in their minds; what event made the biggest impression on them? Without hesitation one of them responded that it was playing baseball on Shabbat afternoon with my son’s West Orange friends. Oriyan hit a triple in his first-ever at bat. I couldn’t have predicted that response but the simplicity of it will remain with me. Like my precious apricot jam, playing a new sport with American teens was the experience they savored. I can only hope they return for more.