By Tali Segal
Eighty-one students, ages 15-17, and their families gathered in the Gratz College parking lot, along with four leaders and Gratz administrators. The students loaded suitcases onto the buses, kissed their parents goodbye and headed off to JFK Airport, for the start of their new adventure; they would be spending almost seven weeks in Israel, studying and touring.
The year was 1977. The parking lot was at 10th & Tabor, Gratz’s location in Philadelphia before moving to Melrose Park.
The Gratz College Ulpan trip to Israel was an annual occurrence. Setting itself apart from popular teen tours of Israel at the time, the Gratz program included intensive Hebrew language lessons while at the base camp of Kfar Galim.
For many of us who were fortunate to be a part of a Gratz Ulpan, the memories still linger…of the land, the history and, perhaps most of all, the people. Gratz stopped running its summer teen ulpan trips decades ago, but the legacy remains.
This past Sunday, for the first time in more than 40 years, the participants of the 1977 Gratz Ulpan held a reunion. It was exhilarating, emotional and fun.
Almost a decade ago, one of the participants, Joe Adelman, started a private group on social media, just for alumni of the 1977 trip. This past January, another participant, Bob Numerof, messaged me about planning a reunion. We spoke about ideas and about gathering a committee.
And suddenly, just a few weeks ago, and several weeks into the stay-at-home orders, it hit me: we could have a virtual reunion.
“A Long Overdue Reunion.” That’s what Joe aptly entitled the invitation. We posted the idea on a Sunday evening, two weeks ahead of the proposed date. Within 24 hours we had many comments showing interest. Participants posted dozens of photos from their albums. The excitement was building and was palpable.
We tracked down two of our junior madrichim (counselors), who were graduate students at the time; both now are rabbis. They were as excited about this reunion as we were. Sadly, our two senior madrichim, esteemed members of the Philadelphia Jewish community, Nathaniel Entin z”l and Clara Isaacman z”l, have passed away. We were not able to track down our two Israeli madrichim.
The participants, about 40 strong, spoke about their lives over the past 43 years, their favorite memories from our collective summer, and the impact that program had on their lives. Waking up in the middle of the night, every night for almost a week, for our very early morning hikes in the Negev, was a recurring theme for favorite memories. One person spoke about how these lasting friendships “are the real gift that the trip gave everyone.” Another friend spoke about how the trip was just “so, so perfect.”
We are in many different fields, with a number in Jewish communal work, as rabbis or otherwise. We live in many places, with California and Florida seeming almost as popular as Philly and the Mid-Atlantic region. Some of us still are raising young children, while others have a bevy of grandchildren. Some have not returned to Israel since 1977, while others have been a dozen times, and still others have lived there at some point. Marriages took place because of connections made on the trip.
We took a moment to remember the Ulpan participants who have passed away, and we continued with memories about them after the reunion ended, on our private social media page.
Joe, the MC of the reunion event, added to the fun by changing his background from time to time; he included Kfar Galim, our home base outside of Haifa, as well as Kiriat Moriah, our Jerusalem base, where we spent a week after landing as well as our last few days before departure.
For two exceptional hours Sunday night, I was transported back in time, to my 15th summer, with many of the special people with whom I had shared that transformational moment in my life.
Tali Segal is a Philadelphia-area attorney.