It was at least 20 years since Mohammed Abu Rish and I were last in touch.
In September 1993 a group of disabled IDF veterans came to Montreal for a recreational visit through the auspices of Beit Halochem Canada, Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel, a nonprofit organization that supports the Beit Halochem Centres in Israel. We were living in Montreal at the time and one day received a phone call from a volunteer asking us to host one member of the delegation.
“You’re comfortable with Arabs,” this person said (referring in a not-so-positive tone to my late husband Stephen P. Cohen’s behind-the-scenes involvement as an intermediary between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership), so will you take the Druze in the group as a house guest? (Note that the Druze are not Arabs.) We agreed and welcomed Mohammed to our home. He had been injured in an action when serving in the IDF on a security detail.
Just a few days later, the White House announced that on Sept. 13, President Bill Clinton would convene a public ceremony where Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin of Israel and Yasir Arafat of the PLO would sign a peace agreement. Not about to miss this historic event, Stephen immediately purchased a ticket to Washington. After a few brief words of explanation to our guest, off he went, leaving me to host Mohammed in our home of women (we have daughters).
So it was that every morning during the soldiers’ tour, I would drive him to the designated drop-off, and head to my job at one of the large Jewish day schools in the city. At the end of the evening, I’d pick him up and bring him home for tea and a snack and a good night’s rest after their full day of touring and shopping. We talked about his day of discoveries, and I shared some stories from my work day.
When Steve returned a few days later, Mohammed summed up in one memorable sentence the cultural difference that he had observed, comparing my lifestyle and the way the women of his village live. “Your wife,” he told my husband, “lives like a woman and a man!”
A few years later, when we were in Israel, we visited the Abu Rish family at their home in Kfar Yarka, their Druze village north of Carmiel. They received us graciously and we enjoyed many hours of lively conversation, home-baked sweet treats and a walking tour of their community. Then we lost touch. This was before everyone had cell phones and their family did not yet have a computer (whether to purchase one was a topic that we had discussed at length). The village does not have street addresses, which eliminated the option of communicating by mail.
Life took its turns and our connection to the Druze family receded into memory. We moved to New Jersey in 1997, work was preoccupying, our daughters all left home and then my husband became ill. After he passed away in January 2017, I had wanted to notify Mohammed, but I didn’t know how (regrettably, despite the search engines at my disposal, it never occurred to me to contact Beit Halochem).
Several weeks ago, I was in Israel for a few weeks and traveled to Akko with a friend. Looking at a map of the area, I noticed that Kfar Yarka was just a few kilometers away and realized that this was an opportunity to find Mohammed. We were there only two days, not enough time to travel to the village, but definitely worth a phone call. The Arab receptionist at our hotel found a phone number through directory assistance, and we called the listed Mohammed Abu Rish. The man who answered wasn’t the one I was seeking, but he went out of his way to be helpful.
“Tell me all you know about him,” he said, “and I will try to locate him. There are 10 people in our village with the same name.”
Two hours later, Mohammed called the hotel, excited to establish contact after 20 years. The next morning, he arrived at our hotel, now sporting a moustache and wearing a head covering, having chosen to become religious in recent years. He was deeply saddened to learn that Stephen had passed away almost three years ago and surprised that the Montreal people with whom he maintained contact had failed to inform him. Mohammed brought a gift of pure olive oil in two-liter recycled Coke bottles and marinated olives, picked on their property in the recent harvest and preserved by his wife and daughters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take them with me on the plane, but my Israeli relatives were delighted to receive them.
After an hour of animated talk about our families and our shared hopes for a stable, peaceful future that our grandchildren could look forward to, we exchanged cell phone numbers, and I promised that on my next visit to Israel, I would include a visit to Kfar Yarka on my itinerary, no matter what. Perhaps I’ll be able to participate in the harvest, working in the fields and kitchen, setting aside an olive branch in Kfar Yarka in memory of Stephen and his dreams for peace.