By MYRON LOVE
It is with nervous excitement that Pam Bager says that she is looking forward to reconnecting with, most of whom she hasn’t seen in almost 50 years. (*Read more for full photo caption.)
Full caption: Here is a photo of our class,” says Pam Bager, “with a few added people (policemen, a few Israelis from Hadassim, young and older – chaperones, I presume. Our teacher, a Canadian from ?Edmonton, Joe Zeev, is crouching at the bottom left. I can spot all 6 of us Winnipeggers, in part or whole, in this photo. Shawn Zell, organizer of the reunion, is crouching down in the middle, bespectacled, in a light blue shirt with white undershirt, and a camera around his neck. I am on his left in a white shirt. The other Winnipeggers are Maury Miloff, crouched in front of Shawn and me, in the green jacket and red shirt, Allie Lehmann in the bright green shirt, with her left elbow on Shawn’s shoulder, Jimmy and Jerry Arenson, behind the girl in the pink shirt standing in front (you can see only the face of one of them – I have no idea which!) and Alan Yusim at the back (top) in the middle in the pinkish shirt – the boy with a red t-shirt is half hidden behind Alan. This seemed to be a good photo as it was clearly taken on a class trip to Jerusalem. You can see David’s Tower and the wall of the Old City behind us.”
On Wednesday, June 27, she and fellow Winnipegger Alan Yusim will be in Israel for the 50th reunion of the first group of Canadian to attend a pilot program for Canadian Grade 10 students, courtesy of Hadassah WIZO, at Hadassim Youth Village, just 4km from Netanya. Bager and Yusim were among 19 Canadian students in the program – including former Winnipeggers Jerry and Jim Arenson, Allie Lehman, Maury Miloff and Rabbi Shawn Zell. The other students were from Halifax, Hamilton, Montreal and Vancouver.
Bager notes that Zell, who leads a congregation in Dallas, Texas, is the individual who is organizing the reunion.
Zell reports that about 30 people (including spouses and other relatives) have indicated that they plan to attend the reunion, which will be held at Hadassim. “We are scheduled to meet at 5:00 and tour the village, then sit down for supper at 6:00,” Zell says.
“It sounded exciting,” says Zell of his decision to enroll in the Hadassim program. “It sounded like it would be something special.”
Bager recalls that it was her mother who noticed an ad about the program in the Jewish Post (in 1968) about sending your child to Israel for Grade 10. “Once she got the information, and decided that it would be a good idea for me, the ball was rolling,” she says. Yusim remembers that he also saw an ad about the program in the Post and mentioned to his parents that he would like to go. “I was fortunate that my parents were in a position to pay the $1,500 fee for the year,” he says. “I packed up a large metal crate and a suitcase and off I went.”
The group met in Montreal and flew from there to Israel. They left on July 12, 1968. Yusim still has his passport from that time.
What Yusim remembers about Hadassim are the school, the dormitories (three or four to a room), the central dining room, the swimming pool and the amphitheatre all surrounded by orange groves. There was a store for small purchases and an Arab village nearby.
“Hadassim raised turkeys,” Yusim recalls. “We frequently had turkey schnitzel and our pillows were stuffed with turkey feathers. I still remember the smell and how the feathers would poke us at night.”
As Zell recalls, it was an exciting time to be in Israel. It was just a year after the Six-Day War. Areas that had been occupied by Jordan before the war were now open to Jewish visitors. And visitors could go anywhere in the country in safety.
“The first time that I saw the Wall, there was still rubble to be cleared away,” he recalls. “And there was no problem visiting Arab villages.”
He also remembers meeting new relatives, being hosted by an Israeli family in Petah Tikvah for Shabbat and talking to a young Israel who only the year before had been fighting a war.
Alan Yusim recalls touring the country from one end to the other – largely on foot. “We hiked in the Golan – not that long before a battleground – and stood overlooking the Lebanese border, for example,” he says.
Among his souvenirs are three bazooka shells he picked up on the Golan.
Yusim also recalls sitting by the Dead Sea on New Year’s eve in shorts and climbing Massada.
He further describes a stay on the beach at Eilat. “I spent a few days on the beach with some American kids,” he recounts. “I did some work in hotel kitchens in Eilat in exchange for food.
“One evening, we lit a huge bonfire on the beach. At four in the morning, some rockets from Aqaba flew across the border. We quickly extinguished the fire while Israeli aircraft went into action.
“In the morning, a helicopter landed near us and Moshe Dayan stepped out. I was surprised at how short he was.
“What amazed me was that almost everyone in Israel was Jewish, not only the doctors and lawyers and businessmen but everybody, even the criminals.”
”I have so many memories of that year,” says Pam Bager. “it was a life-changing experience for a 14-15 year old. I met many Israeli family members for the first time, made friends with kids from around the world, fell in love with Israel. I didn’t want to come home at the end of our year, but of course had no choice. I vowed to return, as soon as I could.”
She went back to Israel after she had completed her first year of university here. “As a result of the love for Israel I discovered during my Grade 10 year in Israel, I ended up marrying an Israeli, in Jerusalem (my ex-husband, and father of my daughter), living and working in Jerusalem for about 6 years, and being the mother of a young woman with a beautiful spirit,” she says.
“That year was one of the best years in my life,” Shawn Zell says. “It played an important role in my decision to become a rabbi.”
Yusim speaks of the new perspective that year gave him as well as the opportunity that the Canadians received in an era before social media to meet and interact with people from all over the world.
“Israel is a beacon of light in a dark and dangerous neigbourhood,” he observes. “It was clear to me even then that Israel was facing a decades-long war of attrition.
“What I experienced that year stayed with me and played a role in the career path I chose working for human rights.”
Bager notes that while she corresponded with some of her new friends for a while after their year together and has seen a couple of people from the large Winnipeg contingent from time to time, the tangible connections over the years have faded. Still, she says, “the spiritual and emotional after-effects of that year, for me, remain as strong as ever. Hadassim and the Israel of 1968-69 which I experienced are in my blood and in my soul.”