December 5, 2022
Sondra Oster Baras
I arrived in Israel in September 1975 to spend the year studying Bible in Jerusalem. I had been an active member of the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement in high school and we were encouraged to spend the year following high school graduation in Israel, to perfect our knowledge of Hebrew, to absorb the culture and deepen our roots to our land. In this way, we would strengthen our resolve to move to Israel as adults.
Some of my friends chose to spend the year on a religious kibbutz, dividing their time between volunteer work, Hebrew study and Bible study. I, together with some close friends from the US, chose to spend the year studying Bible at a college for Orthodox women, which included a program for non-Israelis alongside their much larger Israeli student body. All classes were conducted in Hebrew so only those students with advanced Hebrew were admitted to the program.
Upon arrival, we were assigned to a dormitory apartment, each apartment accommodating 10 students. In my apartment we were 6 Americans and 4 Israelis. While all of the Americans spoke Hebrew well enough to study in an Israeli Bible school, our vocabulary for ordinary living was often lacking. I remember well late-night sessions with my new Israeli friends as they taught me the words for kitchen utensils and tried so hard to help me adopt a more Israeli accent when I spoke Hebrew. (They only partially succeeded.)
It was a wonderful year and an eventful one indeed. The foreign students program included half-day field trips each week to various sites near Jerusalem. Our tour guide became an important rabbi in Israel. At the time, he was a young man who was dedicated to the settlement movement that barely existed. We visited Ofra, which was just a camp for civilians working for the IDF. We visited Kfar Etzion and Kiryat Arba which were already communities in their own right. But nearly every week, he would take us to some hilltop that had a magnificent view or that had some Biblical or historical significance and he would declare: “We will set up a new community here!” At the time, it all seemed both amazing and absurd — could we really believe that so many new communities would be established on so many barren hilltops?
In December of that year, thousands converged on an abandoned railway station in Samaria, demanding the establishment of the first Jewish community in Samaria. And miraculously the government relented and thirty families settled in Kadum, an army camp at the foot of what became Kedumim. Many of you have heard the story of how I spent a very cold January weekend there sleeping in a tent.
Forty-seven years have passed since then and while I often recall my adventures in Samaria, I have rarely given much attention to the experiences of that entire year, the experience of living in Israel for the first time and of studying Bible intensively for a solid year. Until last night.
Last night 8 out of the 10 girls who shared my apartment met together for the first time since June 1976 at a Jerusalem restaurant. We are all grown women. We have all raised families, pursued careers, and contributed in some way to our country and our people. I have remained close to two of the women ever since. But there are others who I have only seen on occasion and I had not seen two of the women since 1976. It was an amazing meeting!
We caught each other up on what we had been doing, whom we had married and how many children we had. Two women were widows, losing their husbands to illness at a young age. One woman shared her frustration and sadness through years of infertility until she was blessed with a child. And how just after her first son was born, she pledged to move to Israel which she did just a few months later. After settling in Israel she proceeded to have three more children. She credited her first-born with pushing her back towards Israel and she credited Israel with the birth of her three daughters.
One woman taught English for years and then pioneered a program to educate young women about family values and family relationships. Another woman went back to school to become an attorney and a Rabbinical Court Advocate, assisting women going through abusive divorces. Another woman worked in the office of a community in Samaria, from its founding until her recent retirement, recalling the early years when efficient administration and communities were words that rarely went together. Another recalled years in Eilat where she and her husband were pioneers in Jewish education at a time when so few people in that southern town thought or cared about God.
Each woman had a story to tell. And so many of our children ended up knowing one another — meeting in high school, Bible school, the army or university.
We had all grown in different ways, raised children and now grandchildren, dealt with many different challenges. But there was one thing we all had in common, one thing that we carried with us since those days in school together so many years ago. We loved to study the Bible and continue to study the Bible, and some of us teach Bible, each in our own way.
Isaiah teaches us: “For the Torah (Bible) will go forth from Zion.” We had all gathered together in Jerusalem 47 years ago to study Bible and we gathered again, in our beloved Jerusalem to reconnect as grown women. We had all changed but one thing remained the same. We were all equally committed to the Bible, to the word of God, to following His commandments, contributing to our people and settling our Land. Baruch Hashem — Thank God!