The years have been kind to us, I thought as the five of us gathered again. We’re grayer and less carefree, some of us could lose a few pounds, but we are content, healthy, successful and surrounded by cherished families.
Our gatherings are less frequent than in the Old Days, especially since one of our merry group has transplanted his family in Israel, where our long association, now in its 27th year, began. But over dinner at Mendy’s on a recent weeknight we picked up where we left off, talking about the adventures we shared over many months at Yeshivah Neveh Zion and in the years since. It was with these four fun-loving, rebellious (up to a point) companions regularly at my side that I laughed my way through the transition from late teenage years to young adult, traveling together, hanging out, pursuing female companionship and even occasionally learning some Torah, although I am sworn to secrecy on that.
We didn’t become a group immediately. It took several dorm room changes, some late-night bus trips back from town and at least one long night listening to Pink Floyd under a makeshift psychedelic light. The photo albums tell the rest of the story, judging by the mutual collection of group shots we have accumulated. Four of us came back for a second year. Then there were the barbecues at home, the parties, the double- and triple-dates, the weekends at hotels and, eventually the weddings.
Today, we have 15 children between us; four of us have chosen respectable careers, while I am a journalist. Dov and Jonathan are lawyers. Mike is a paramedic and small business owner. Ian is a film director and writer. All but one of us has held onto the Orthodox lifestyle we group up with, although we are all proud Jews. Our friendship has been buffeted and tested by time, but never by disagreement.
After our most recent get-together, I worried that there are fewer recent memories each time, and even details of past adventures are becoming sketchy. Much of our conversations these days revolve, like our lives, around our kids. My wife, Jody, reminded me that "you guys will always be connected, for the rest of your lives." And the words of Shakespeare came to mind: "We lucky few, we band of brothers." We may not have shed blood in battle, but there was something unique and binding about the comradery we shared. I suspect that bond was Israel.
Much has been written or said about the risks of sending late-teens 6,000 miles from home to study in Israel. It is to Israel’s discredit that alcohol and cigarettes are easily available to minors there and that drugs evidently aren’t less prevalent in Jerusalem than in major U.S. cities. Even in the best yeshivas, the teacher to student ratio doesn’t allow for sufficient supervision to overrule the poor judgment of an at-risk kid.
But on the bright side, peer pressure works both ways, and getting mixed up with the right crowd can be just as powerful an influence as getting mixed up with the wrong one. I suspect my band of brothers would never have become that had we met at a SUNY campus, at NYU or even at YU or Brandeis. Those long months in Israel, experiencing holidays there, immersed in Jewish history and culture bonded us together not just as friends, but as Jews. And we know how well that bond that stands the test of time.