Leah in her home in Israel


by Leah Sarna, at age 13

Far away from the part of New England that I called home, I was slumped against a dirty Jerusalem Stone wall watching dog-walkers pause as their dogs watered the eucalyptus trees and little children return from corner stores with loaves of bread. These people doing routine jobs calmed me slightly as I awaited the arrival of a dusty white van which would carry me to my first day of school in the Holy Land. This would become routine for me, standing here groggily at 7:05 a.m., in Jerusalem waiting for my ride to the Evelina D. Rothschild School. The only reasons I was able to even get this far were pure nerve and the thought of a friendly face awaiting me inside the van.

A week or so prior to this day I received a phone call to my new home in Jerusalem. (My family would spend the year in Israel, and then return to Boston.) On the phone was Eli, a girl I had known from my hometown in Boston. I had spent only a limited amount of time with her, but from the time we had shared, I knew that Eli was talkative, funny and extremely outgoing. We arranged to go to the local pool the next day. While waiting in line to slip down the waterslide, I found out that she would be attending the same school as I, and that we would be in the same class.

The line was long and Eli went to the bathroom, asking me to save her spot. I began wondering why we had never been such close friends before. I assumed that it was because she had gone to a different school than I had. That led me to question how I, as a shy third grader, had been outgoing enough that she remembered me. When she came back it surprised me that she was not angry, for I had lost our place in line by being so deep in thought that I forgot to move. We became fast friends after an entire day of smelling the blue, chlorinated water, hearing loud shouts of Israeli children splashing in the water, scraping our legs and arms on the walls of the pool in out attempts to climb out without using the ladder, and tasting the salty chips that her mother had brought as a snack.

Upon boarding the van I was greeted with a hearty “hey!” from Eli, and a pep talk from the other English speaking girls on the bus about how they would help me understand what the Hebrew speaking teachers said, and how I shouldn’t worry at all because everyone would love me. The latter proved half true, I became close friends with many of the girls in my 5th grade class, but there were a few who I never grew to like. The prior, however, was a blessing. The girls kept their words and helped me to understand everything the teacher taught.

I learned a lot during that year, aside from Hebrew. I learned of my ability to adjust, how to have fun, and, mostly, how to relax. Eli taught me the last two. She is the most laid back person I have ever met, and it’s not that she doesn’t care; she only cares about important things, such as people. She could make anything fun by using a silly voice or telling a hilarious joke. Today, I still repeat her jokes to my friends in Boston. Eli cared so much about my welfare that she wouldn’t let me play with my double jointed fingers for fear it would give me arthritis. I think she was a little confused about that fact, since she had no problem cracking her knuckles. I found that whenever I felt homesick, she was sympathetic, but would re- mind me of all my friends in Israel, and how great they were. She was right; I fit nicely into my class and had a wonderful circle of friends. My Israeli friends differed so greatly from my American ones that I was somewhat awed by how at ease I felt around them.

I survived the first day of school and by the last day, I didn’t want to leave. I loved the girls in my class, the animals which I cared for in the schools little animal corner (‘Pinat HaChai’), the drama club which Eli and I belonged to, Scouts where I spent Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, and the small Shul that I belonged to. The day before I was to fly back to the United States, Eli threw me a good-bye party. At the party one of the activities was to pretend to be me, beseeching my mother to permit me to stay in Israel. It was fun, in a bittersweet sort of way. I was not permitted to leave, there were ten girls blocking my path to the door, and I started crying.

5th grade was one of the most amazing years of my life, and much of its greatness could be traced back to an eight-year- old version of myself breaking out of her shyness and befriending an Israeli girl named Eli. I certainly had no idea how much this would help me in the future, how this friendship would turn an entire year from being a terrible experience, to being the experience of a lifetime.