Mom sees sons buzz cut on live TV link from Masada

It's hard for me to decide which was the greatest miracle.

Talking cell phone to cell phone from Oakland to Israel?

A live broadcast of a sunrise service from the top of Masada to an auditorium in Oakland?

The story of Masada?

How about mobilizing 185 teenagers at 2 a.m. to hike the snake path to the top of Masada, 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea so they could star in the closed-circuit telecast?

Or maybe the greatest miracle is that this wasn't even a first.

For the second year, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay sponsored "Masada Live," a real-time broadcast last week from the site's ancient synagogue featuring the teens who are there on trips sponsored by the federation and Koret Foundation.

Masada, located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, has become a symbol of Israel and the survival of the Jewish people. It is the site where about 1,000 Jewish zealots reportedly fled in 66 C.E. when the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem.

Believing they were the last surviving Jews, the zealots held out against the Roman siege for about seven years. When the Romans penetrated the fortress, all but a handful of the zealots reportedly chose suicide rather than returning to Jerusalem as Roman slaves.

My son was one of the teens on Masada. He had been in Israel for 4-1/2 weeks. This was our longest separation ever.

At the airport, I issued a final frenzy of advice. Use sunscreen. Drink a lot of water. Wear your hat. Remember to write. Or call.

Every few days he calls. I ask what he's doing. What he thinks of things. How he's feeling. What he likes best. What he likes least.

He answers with, "Nothin' much," "So-so," "Yeah, I guess so," or "I dunno." Only two pieces of solid information have come my way. The Western Wall, Jerusalem's holiest site for Jews, was smaller than he expected. And he got a buzz haircut.

I was hungry for a glimpse of Sammy.

So on Thursday of last week, I joined about 400 other parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and friends at Oakland's Samuel Merritt College Health Education Center to watch "Masada Live."

Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the East Bay federation, talked cell phone to cell phone with the technicians on the top of Masada. The broadcast was about to begin.

He asked that parents be respectful, considerate and that they contain their excitement if they saw their child.

Yeah, right.

As soon as the first stones of Masada appeared on the screen, there was a swell of voices. Chairs scraped, bodies shifted, people moved around vying for a better viewing position.

"Audio," someone called out. "Turn up the sound."

"Lights," several people said. "Turn off the lights."

"I assure you, the technicians who are running this also know how to work the light switches," Nahshon said.

When Nitzan Aviv, leader of the federation trip and director of the East Bay federation's Israel Center, began to talk, the lights went out, the sound came up and the picture was as clear and smooth as a movie. As the camera panned the crowd, kids mugged, blew kisses, mouthed, "I love you mom," and held up signs — "I miss my mom more than your kid misses you," and "Jocie Birthday Happy."

I stared at the screen looking for Sammy. I was afraid I wouldn't recognize him with his new haircut.

I didn't.

It wasn't until the camera swung back around and his face filled the screen that I realized the kid I had seen earlier was Sammy. He gave the camera a thumbs-up and then his signature grin.

The teens sang "Mah Tovu," "Oseh Shalom" and "Eli, Eli," with arms draped over each other's shoulders, swaying back and forth, and bouncing up and down. Some of the Oakland crowd joined in.

When Elisha Wolfin, one of the leaders of the Koret trip, asked the teens on Masada and those in Oakland to rise for the singing of "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem, all mugging, sign holding and kiss blowing stopped.

Somewhere in cyberspace, across almost 8,000 miles, our voices joined.

After the sunrise service, a hoarse-voiced Yossi Cohen Meidan, Koret trip leader, talked to 12 teens there about their experience. Visiting the Western Wall was high on the spiritual scale. They seemed to be getting in touch with their Judaism in a new, profound way. They talked of the feeling of community among themselves — and with the Israeli teens they met on kibbutzim and in the army.

Joseph Tenenbaum, an Orinda teen, expected to find a more powerful variety of Judaism in Israel and worried that, as an American, he was less of a Jew. But he now realizes that they're all Jews, whether in Israel, America or anywhere else.

"I'm not going to say this often," said Noona Joseph, a Los Gatos teen who had been reluctant to go to Israel. "But I'm accepting the fact that my parents were totally right about this trip."

The youths were full of insights, advice and praise about the trip. They talked of self-discovery, newfound spirituality and having the most amazing experience of their lives.

"Israel is here for you," said Adam Brooks, a Walnut Creek teen. "If you can't find your Judaism anywhere else, you should come here. If you've found your Judaism, Israel will enhance it."

As the "Masada Live" program ended, the camera panned to the horizon. The sky turned yellow, red and orange as the sun rose over the Dead Sea.

I walked out of the conference center, just as the sky in Oakland was fading into silver. Soon the sun would set, the same sun that was rising over Masada.

Now that's a miracle.