By Toby Klein Greenwald
I can still remember the screaming headline in May 1967: “Straits of Tiran Closed.” I didn’t even know where exactly Tiran was, but I knew it was bad for Israel.
It was a blockade that Egypt had put on Israel’s access to the international waters of the Red Sea, and was an act of war. A variety of Arab leaders had proclaimed, over the years, that they would “throw the Jews into the sea.” Which sea that would be was academic. On May 19, Nasser threw the 3,500 United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) troops out of Sinai so that he could move the Egyptian army in.
We were in the midst of preparing for and taking our 12th-grade finals in Yavne, the girls’ high school of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. I had been active in B’nei Akiva for years and I already had a plane ticket for July 10 to Israel. I would spend a year at Machon Gold, one of the few gap-year study programs that existed at the time.
And then suddenly everything was thrown into question. What would happen in Israel? Today we speak about the miracles, but in the dark days of May 1967, we only knew that the situation was perilous. Every day we said extra Tehillim during Shacharit, and when our class attended a Bais Yaakov convention in Montreal that year, I remember one of the Yavne Seminary students who accompanied us speaking with me about attending the seminary if going to Israel would not be an option. I could not fathom the possibility, but was suddenly thrown back into the dilemma of choosing between university in Cleveland, seminary, or . . . what? How could I not fulfill my dream of spending my first year after high school in Jerusalem?
Our Jewish Studies teachers were the rebbetzins of Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania. They had lost most of their family members in the Shoah (they themselves escaped via Shanghai), so the atmosphere was highly charged. We were still close enough to the Holocaust to know that another one was a real possibility, especially against the backdrop of the violent Arab screams for “death to the Jews.”
There are two especially vivid images that live in my memory from those days. One is of an Israeli girl in our school wandering the halls in distress and tears and saying that she had heard that Tel-Aviv and Haifa—both cities in which she had relatives—had been bombed to smithereens. These were the only messages getting through—disinformation from the Arab radio stations. Israel (in those days before cellphones and social media) kept a tight clampdown on any information. I heard the same story later, from Israelis, who only on Wednesday began to hear the truth, when Jerusalem was liberated.
The other image is one of unity. The Cleveland Jewish community had decided to hold a mass prayer rally (I don’t remember if it was for the entire community or only for all the schoolchildren in the community), and the largest area they could find among the community properties was the parking lot of the Conservative Park Synagogue. So our school—strictly Orthodox and with what today would be called a charedi staff for the Jewish studies—loaded us onto buses and we joined the rest of the Jewish community—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated—in that parking lot to rally and to pray together for peace in Israel.
And then the good news came. “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” The Golan, the Sinai, Judea and Samaria, with our most sacred places of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Tombs of Rachel and of Joseph. As a member of B’nei Akiva, I was familiar with the heroic story of Gush Etzion, and that was also back in our hands now. There was great joy and relief in the community.
But nothing prepared me for the euphoria in the air when I alighted from that small El Al plane (the larger ones were still in army service) on the tarmac of Lod (today Ben-Gurion) Airport on July 11, 1967. The elation of the people. And the sun, the blazing, hot, unshelled sun. I remember thinking about how Avraham Avinu sat at his tent entrance ready to welcome guests, and I finally understood the significance of it, under that hot Israeli sun. Never had I felt sun like that.
The first phrase on the lips of every person and service provider we met was “Welcome home.”
A friend had made the trip with me and we expected to be met by someone from Machon Gold or from the Jewish Agency. But nobody came. Fortunately, her Hebrew was better than mine, and we managed to get our two suitcases each (plus hand luggage, books, and winter coats over our arms, in that sun) onto the bus to Jerusalem.
I looked hungrily out the window on the long, winding road (before the Latrun road was renovated and shortened the trip from Tel-Aviv), the same road on which medical and army convoys had been attacked during the War of Independence, and wondered when I would see the Kotel. I looked at every stone wall along the way, thinking, “Maybe that’s the Kotel?” Yes, I knew the Kotel was in Jerusalem, but my knowledge of geography left something to be desired and I didn’t know at what point we would actually enter Jerusalem . . . or were we already there? So my friend kindly informed me that no, we were not in Jerusalem yet.
When we did get there, and got our gear off the bus (still in the hot sun), we found ourselves in front of a bus station as small as a western stagecoach station, except there were buses there instead of horses and stagecoaches. We kept looking for a cab, which we had been told was a “sherut,” so we naturally assumed that the plural was “sherutim” (Hebrew for “bathrooms,” we eventually discovered), and asked for that. But after several long hauls of all our luggage back and forth to the little outhouse behind the station, and seeing no cabs, we gave up and took another bus.
We were let off only two stops later, to finally walk into the cool, tall, old Arab building that was Machon Gold (we were told it had belonged to a sheikh and all our dorm rooms had belonged to his harem) and there met the madrich who looked at our sweaty selves and said, “Ah, we were expecting you tomorrow.”
But this inauspicious beginning was followed, for me, by a year of exploring and travel—in my free time I would get on any city bus line, ride to the end, and get off and walk around till I found another bus—and a year of learning from the greatest teachers in Jewish education—Nechama Leibowitz, Rav Yeshayahu Hadara (who that same year founded Yeshivat HaKotel), Dr. Gabi Cohn, Dr. Ephrat Piltz Ben-Menahem—teachers of phenomenal erudition, brilliance, genius.
Machon Gold was gender-wise and internationally mixed in those days, and we met students from Europe, Australia, South America, India, Mexico, and everywhere else on the globe where Jews lived and wanted to send their young people away to get a better education in the land of our forefathers and foremothers. The education I received from my fellow students on their challenges in their home countries, their way of life, their customs, and their dreams for the future added immeasurably to the tapestry of my education that year.
My first week in Israel, I walked around the neighborhood, got to know the alleyways, tried (unsuccessfully) to find the Kotel on my own, joined a friend in a visit to Hebron—which still had white diapers and tablecloths flying from the rooftops, a sign of surrender, as they had been expecting the Israeli army to come in and massacre them, as they had massacred the Jews in 1929. We traveled by hitchhiking, which was safe in those days. One of the soldiers who gave us a ride, hearing I was from Cleveland, asked if I knew his cousin. I thought, what are the chances? It turned out she had been in the group I led in B’nei Akiva, so it was my first encounter with the “small Jewish world.”
Another soldier took us up to Me’arat HaMachpelah and showed us the notorious seventh step which was the highest one that that Muslim Mamelukes had initiated as the closest the Jews could ascend to, which was later even more restricted, and only ended with the liberation of the Cave in June 1967.
Exploring in Jerusalem, I learned the difference between two Hebrew words I kept getting mixed up: “yashar” (straight) and “yemin” (right), which had me sometimes going around in circles.
I finally did find the Kotel, with a little help from my friends. Three Australian students at the machon took me there on my first Shabbat. There were still huge boulders where the rocks of the dividing wall between the two halves of Jerusalem had been torn down, and we had to climb over those most of the way to Jaffa Gate. When we finally reached the Kotel, on that hot July afternoon, I began to cry on the shoulder of Shifra, one of Australians. “Don’t cry on me,” she said, “that’s what the Kotel is for. Cry there.”
And that Saturday night—from the sacred to the profane—she and her friends continued my education by inviting me to see an Israeli film with them, The Policeman Azulai. The Israeli way of watching films in those days included shouting back to the screen, clapping at the high points, eating sunflower seeds, and rolling soft drink bottles down the aisles. A true community experience.
Later that year, I almost left Machon Gold to join Kfar Etzion, the renewed settlement in the Gush. I consulted with Nechama Leibowitz who advised me to get my teaching degree first. I stayed, and then began to visit the renewed Jewish community in Hevron, after their first Pesach there. I spent many inspiring Shabbatot and vacations there and was given the job of the first madrichah of B’nei Akiva, Hevron chapter.
I remained in Israel, and after studying at Jerusalem College for Women and Hebrew University, I married Yaakov Greenwald, an Israeli who had fought to liberate the Old City of Jerusalem while I was writing my high-school finals.
Our family moved to Efrat in Gush Etzion, 17 years after I dreamed of it. We have lived here since 1985, in a community filled with activism, joy, and chesed.
Adapted and expanded from “Finals Under Faraway Fire,” which appeared in the March 2017 issue of Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.
The author is the award-winning director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre, a journalist, educator, and poet, editor of WholeFamily.com, and the mother and grandmother of children spread throughout the land of Israel, from the north to the Negev.