A land where strangers realize they are really family

I once worked as a guide for a summer teen tour to Israel.

I'll never forget sitting in Jerusalem with Karen, a young participant from Dallas, helping her make a phone call.

Don't misunderstand, she knew how to use the phone; I was there to translate. I was helping her arrange a family weekend — a time for each of the American kids on the trip to visit relatives or friends in Israel.

Each teen came with names, phone numbers and addresses of relatives, or of family friends, or of relatives of family friends. If you've been to Israel you know how it is. Everyone gives you the number of a certain someone whom you just must call. I was helping this young woman make her phone call — apparently her cousins (whom she'd never met) spoke very little English.

I dialed the number. A young Israeli woman, 15 or 16 years old, answered. I explained the situation, why I was the one calling and not her cousin. It turned out that the Israeli woman spoke English well so I handed the phone over to Karen. They said shalom, made a little small talk. Then Karen asked if it would be OK to come for the weekend. The young Israeli said it seemed fine but that she just wanted to check with her mother. We waited a few moments and then she was back on the line.

"I'm sorry, what was your name again," the Israeli asks?

"Karen, Karen Stein," the American responds.

"Are you sure you dialed the right number?" the Israeli girl says. "You see, my family's from Iraq and my mom doesn't even think we have relatives in America."

We checked the telephone number and realized that indeed, I'm the one who didn't know how to use the phone. I'd dialed the wrong number. These people weren't her relatives. But then, the Israeli girl continued: "Karen, I spoke to my mom. You're welcome to come and stay with us for the weekend anyway."

We never could get a hold of Karen's cousins so she went and spent the weekend with the family we'd phoned by mistake. They had a wonderful time together, and now Karen has her own number that she can give to her friends and family when they travel to Israel for a visit. I guess I dialed the right number after all.

This, perhaps more than anything else, is why I love Israel. It's why Israel is so important to me as an American Jew. We live in a fragmented world. It's hard sometimes to make connections with others, even with folks with whom we have so much in common like our neighbors or co-workers.

I grew up in Omaha, Neb. It's where I spent the formative years of my life. It's where my father and sister live, my nieces and nephew, my aunt and many of my cousins. But I've never felt as connected there as I did the two years I lived in Israel. It was there that I learned what it is to be part of an am, a people. (Full disclosure: It's also the place where I met Jacqueline, the woman who would become my wife. We named our first born Yisraela so you'll forgive me if I get carried away when I think of this place.)

A visit to Israel may not lead to marriage, but it is practically guaranteed to result in an experience somewhat like the one my camper Karen had. Maybe it's with a cab driver or a tour guide or a stranger on a bus. Suddenly you feel a connection to a person you've never met. There is some sort of magic there that, despite the ethnic and religious tensions, despite deep internal and external divisions, manages somehow to bring people together.

"Jerusalem built up is a city knit together…" In the Midrash, the collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible, these words from Psalm 122 are read creatively as, "Jerusalem is the city that brings people together."

This verse is often understood as a type of prayer, a longing for a messianic time when Jerusalem itself will bring all of humanity together in peace. But the amazing thing is that we don't have to wait for the Messiah to come to be able to see it this way. The sentiment is true and real right now. Jerusalem is the city that brings so many together in friendship. Israel is the place that connects Jews from a hundred different lands.

As we celebrate Israel's 55th birthday, I remember the way that place brought me together with so many people I love. I think of the friends with whom I laughed and studied and hiked and worshipped.

Israel is the place that brings Jews together. It is a magic place where strangers realize that they are really family.