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From Strangers to Family: The Israel Experience

On June 2, 2015, my three-year old son almost died.

Depending on your definition of death and how technical you want to get… he did die. A hard plastic tube was shoved down his tiny throat so that air could be manually pumped into his tiny lungs, and large, adult hands pounded rhythmically on his tiny chest. After approximately two minutes, his heart started to beat again and some color returned to his beautiful, doll-like, long-lashed face.

Unfortunately, that incident of cardiac arrest was merely the beginning of a never-ending nightmare.

Again, if you want to get technical about things, the acute nightmare ended after roughly two months, but in a personal sense, the nightmare never ends once you watch your child slip away over and over again while brilliant doctors scratch their chins and tell you that they simply don’t know why your child is trying to die on you.

So how does this sad, dramatic anecdote have anything to do with Israel? I promise—I’m getting there.

Once my son was resuscitated, I sat, in a state of utter shock and disbelief, by his side in an ambulance as he was rushed to Cook Children’s Hospital and admitted directly into the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

My parents and my loving husband were by my side, but in a brief moment of clarity, I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text. It did not go to my very best friend in the whole world, nor did it go to my close attorney friends who I see regularly and use as a constant sounding board for any and all drama, stress and/or excitement in my life.

Instead, during that very brief flash of lucidity, I sent a message to my newest friend-- a friend that I had met just three months prior. In short, I told her what had happened, where we were, asked her to pray and requested that she spread the word to our “group.”

Within minutes, literally, emails and texts started pouring in. “We are thinking of you.” “We are praying for Ryder.” “Be strong.” “We love you.” “Is there anything we can do?” Though the details are all pretty blurry now, I believe it was less than an hour later when the friend I had texted, Stephanie, appeared out of nowhere and was standing by my side right there in the ICU.

She didn’t know if showing up was the right thing to do, and she certainly didn’t know what to say once she got there (who does, in that sort of situation?), but she gave me a hug, cried with me and prayed.

I reached out to Stephanie because of a fresh and indestructible spiritual connection. You see, three months earlier, I met Stephanie in Israel. I did not technically “meet” her there, but I met her there.

My husband and I went to Israel on a mission trip through a local leadership program with eleven other individuals. Neither my husband nor I had ever been before. It was a divine experience on every level, and I could write a complete novel, if not a trilogy, about our itinerary and our experiences in Israel. I could go on and on about how I felt, as I stood at the Western Wall with my hands reached out and my head resting against the cool stone, and my understanding of the importance of Israel and the depth of my Jewishness became tangible.

However, that is not the assignment I’ve been tasked with here. For now, I’ve been asked to describe how my trip to Israel affected me and how I am different at home, with my family, because of it.

To a certain extent, I think the fact that I reached out to Stephanie first, while hovering over my toddler’s hospital bed, tangled in the wires and tubes that protruded from every inch of his fragile body, speaks for itself. Israel bonded our group, which consisted of individuals ranging in age from 32 to 52 from all different walks of life, like nothing else I had ever experienced (which says a lot coming from a person who spent her childhood summers at Jewish sleepaway camp and survived three grueling years in law school – both experiences that bond you eternally with your companions).

During those dark, dark weeks, when I spent more time crying and praying than I did eating or sleeping, the Israel group was my rock (not to downplay the critical role that my family and other friends played). Several of them showed up at the hospital, without asking or giving a heads up, because they needed to see me and hug me and pray for my little boy.

Others sent daily texts with words of encouragement and continued prayers. The holiness and spirituality that is Israel came back home with me in the form of this diverse and eclectic group of eleven individuals. I survived, in part, because of the critical role that these people played in my time of need but also because I knew that the entire DFW Jewish community at large was collectively praying for and cheering my son on thanks to the group’s self-imposed mission to spread the word and ensure that each of the congregations in the area knew that my kid needed a spot on any and all prayer lists.

Here we are today, three months later, and my beautiful, big-eyed, long-lashed, delicate, brilliant, stubborn, manipulative almost-three-year-old is thriving. We were left empty-handed in terms of medical answers or explanations, but we have full hands and hearts because we have our son. He’s home and safe, with very little memory of what he went through in June (and the months that followed). He doesn’t like “pokes” and he still doesn’t like the blood pressure cuff that “hugs” his arm or leg when he goes in for check-ups, but what child does? I survived too, and despite the nightmares that still haunt me in the night and the flashbacks that occasionally haunt me during daylight hours, I’d like to think I’m stronger and better for what my family went through. And despite not thinking it was humanly possible, the support I received from my Israel group brought us all-the-closer.

Moving on to the more mundane, yet no-less-important, ways in which my Israel trip affected my family and home life: My husband and I both find ourselves talking about Israel, whether between ourselves, with family, or with friends (both Jewish and non-Jewish alike). We may be debating politics, reflecting on memories from our trip or discussing current affairs, but the point is that Israel was never a part of our conversation in our pre-Israel life and now it is. We have also started to light Shabbat candles each and every Friday night. We may have to Google and read some of the prayers straight off of our iPhones. We sometimes say the Hamotzi after we’ve already devoured a half bag of Skinny Pop while standing in the kitchen with a child propped on each of our hips. We often have to jimmy a big candle into a small candle stick or rig a big candle stick with foil in order to keep a small candle from tipping over because we just never seem to have proper-sized Shabbat candles. And it is certainly rare that all four of us – me, my husband and our two young sons – are all standing and praying together given that the two littles have such early bedtimes and our evenings are crazy and hectic and messy.

But it’s a new tradition, and it’s special.

We get together with our Israel group friends as often as possible, whether it’s for a casual brunch, a crazy night out at a karaoke bar or a meeting to put our newfound leadership skills to work. Both my husband and I now serve on various planning committees either with or because of other individuals in our Israel group. We attend three-times as many Federation events as we did prior to our trip. We have been profoundly touched and changed by Israel, as individuals, as spouses and as a family, in ways that we can’t even communicate in words. We miss Israel, we dream of Israel and we so desperately want to go back.

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