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‘You need to go home now’

It was the summer of 1970. I had just finished ninth grade. One of my classmates, Dexter, called me one morning to come over to play football in his side yard with a bunch of friends from school, then later we’d all sleep over at his house that night. I jumped into the front seat of my mom’s car for the half-hour drive into town. We lived way out in the country — the only Jewish family in any direction for 30 miles. When I finally got to Dexter’s house — the last one to arrive — the tackle football game was already in high gear. It was summertime: We had no school and we could play tackle football with our friends all day. In 1970, it couldn’t get any better than that!

It was a hot Alabama summer afternoon. Dexter’s mom — I will call her Mrs. “Roberts,” brought out a large pitcher of lemonade for us. She knew most of the boys from the neighborhood, but Dexter politely introduced a few of us, myself included, to her. “Oh, you must be Dr. and Mrs. Stricker’s son,” she stated as she trained her eyes on me. I enjoyed that Mrs. Roberts singled me out for special recognition. We quickly downed the pitcher of lemonade and got right back to our imaginary gridiron, barking out plays and clobbering each other.

I had just made a diving catch and was crawling out from the bottom of the pile, when Mrs. Roberts called out — “Michael, please come here; I need you to do something for me.” I quickly galloped over. Mrs. Roberts was standing in the side door of her home. She had a phone in her hand that she extended out to me. The long extension cord was stretched tightly from the laundry room wall to the outside of the home. She said to me, “Please tell me your phone number so I can call your mother. You need to go home now because it’s getting very late.” I innocently responded, “Oh no, Mrs. Roberts, my mom knows I am spending the night at your house.” Mrs. Roberts’s facial expression hardened. “Give me your telephone number, Michael …”

Another half hour later, my mom’s car pulled up to the curb and I sheepishly mumbled goodbye to the other kids. As we drove off, I saw Mrs. Roberts still standing in the side door of her house. Why was I the only one being sent home?

My parent’s bedroom door was shut that evening. From behind the door, I could hear my parents discussing what had happened to me earlier that day. My father’s firm voice declaring, “It is time for Michael to know who he is and why that is something for him to be proud of, not ashamed.” Three short weeks later, I stood alone in the international terminal at JFK airport in New York waiting to meet a group of 30 other teens from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Livingston, New Jersey. We were all about to board El Al flight No. 001, on our way to Israel for six weeks.

As the giant 747 touched down at the old Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, the entire passenger cabin burst into the spontaneous singing of “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem” (We come to greet you in peace). This moving melody is also sung in Jewish homes the world over when returning from Synagogue on Friday nights prior to the Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. It was electric, unexpected … and welcoming. As I knelt down to kiss the tarmac, tears welled up and streamed down my cheeks. I had come home and I was bringing with me the longing, the prayers and the dreams of my family’s past generations.

In 70 A.D. the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem. The Great Temple was burned to the ground and the Jewish people were exiled from their land. With a very small remnant remaining, the vast majority of the Jews were dispersed and forced to wander the globe for 2,000 years, we were a people without a homeland. When I first set eyes on the “Kotel,” the Western Wall of what had been the Great Temple destroyed by the Romans, it was the evening of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av). This is the saddest day of the year on the Jewish calendar. It is the day that Jews mourn the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans, as well as other major calamities and humiliations that have befallen my people.

That night in 1970, there were tens of thousands of people praying at the Kotel, their mournful lamentations reaching back across the generations of a long-suffering and homeless people. As I pressed my lips against the coolness of the huge stones of the Wall for the first time, my heart thundered like it was going to jump out of my chest. At that moment, I realized that I was one more link in a long chain … stretching back through a hundred generations, personally connecting me to G-d’s revelation to his people at Sinai.

Fifty years ago, the landscape of 1970 Israel was quite different than what first-time visitors to Israel find in 2020. Today, Israel is a modern high-tech giant. But in 1970, it was still mostly an agricultural country. Verdant orchards of sweet, brightly colored oranges, bananas and crops of all kinds seemingly stretched to the horizon. Farming communities, “kibbutzim,” dotted the landscape. More diverse than the agriculture, however, were the people themselves. Decades before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and after, the scattered Jewish people returned home in great immigrant waves from communities all over the world. So many varied complexions, facial characteristics, accents, different styles of dress and customs, were all woven together into one hopeful people — determined, against all odds, to once again make the desert bloom. A people returning home after 2,000 years in exile … destined to once again take their rightful place on history’s stage. As strange and new as this all was to me, I was in the thick of it and comfortably so.

During the next six weeks, our group traveled the entire country. In the pre-dawn darkness, we climbed to the top of Masada, the desert fortress where the Jewish people took their last stand against the Roman legions. I saw the sunrise over the purple-hued mountains of Moab, sending its morning rays shimmering down and across the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. I stood on an overlook near Jericho, gazing eastward across the valley toward those same mountains of Moab, envisioning the children of Israel massing as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. I picked up a smooth stone in the Valley of Elah and imagined that I was the shepherd boy, David, called upon to face down the Philistine giant, Goliath and save the Kingdom of Israel. I bathed in the crystal clear waters of the Sea of Galilee and watched the spiritual rapture of Christian pilgrims as they were baptized in the waters of the Jordan River at Yardenit. I looked down from the Golan Heights onto the Israeli farms below, appreciating the enormous sacrifice of life that young Israeli soldiers suffered during the Six-day War as they exhaustingly battled their way up the escarpment to finally quiet the Syrian bombardments from fortified gun positions on the plateau above.

In the final week of my trip, we housed at Kibbutz Ein Harod in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. On the perimeter of the Kibbutz, I discovered a freshly plowed field that faced the bare, rocky ridges of Mount Gilboa. In the late afternoons, I would steal away and sit in the dark brown, fertile earth, imagining the horrible battle that had taken place there 3,000 years ago and the ultimate crushing defeat of King Saul’s army at the hands of the Philistines. I imagined the humiliation that my people must have experienced when they heard of the decapitation of King Saul and his sons … and then I would hear the deafening roar overhead of F–4 Phantom jets as the modern day Israeli Defense Forces practiced their maneuvers directly above, flying low across the valley as a poignant reminder of this young country’s resounding victory in the Six-Day War of 1967. I ran the dirt through my fingers, over and over again, as I contemplated all that I had seen and experienced that summer of 1970.

As the Israel coastline and the tall buildings of Tel Aviv slowly faded over the wing of the 747 bound for New York, I pressed my forehead against the small window and I made a promise to myself that I would return. Three years later, immediately after my high-school graduation, I came back to Israel to work as a volunteer at Kibbutz Ein Harod for three months. In 1980, I returned for a semester of law school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My wife and I traveled with our children year-after-year to Israel with the hope that they too would develop their own personal attachment to the land and a love for its people. Our oldest son served in the Israeli Defense Forces and today lives in Beersheva. Our middle son is the Boston director of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Our daughter spent a year of study in Israel, worked as a volunteer for Israel’s National Ambulance Service and speaks Hebrew fluently.

It’s now been 50 years and as Tisha B’Av reminds me, as it does every year, invariably of to the summer of 1970 and that football afternoon in the side yard at Dexter’s house. I can still see that telephone cord stretched out tight — and Mrs. Robert’s words still ring out in my ears — but with an altogether different meaning … “You need to go home now …”

Michael A. Stricker is a respected local attorney who has strong ties to the state of Israel. Michael travels to Israel often and has a son who lives in Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is also a political activist for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

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