Every year my kids go to summer camp at the JCC in Orlando. For the past few years, the camp has had Israeli counselors that come to teach the kids Israeli culture. They stay with host families for the summer. I’ve met the girls before. They have always been lovely. But having one of them stay with us has never been on my radar.
About a month before camp started I got a call from a friend and super JCC volunteer named Tara. She asked if we had ever considered hosting a shlicha. I didn’t know what that word was. Once she explained that it meant one of these Israeli ambassadors who visit the camp, I started to panic. This sounded like the worst possible idea… ever. How on Earth was I going to get off the phone as soon as humanly possible?
The thought of having a stranger in my house for that long sounded awful. But every question I had, she had an answer to. We aren’t kosher. We don’t observe Shabbat. None of that mattered. She insisted that the girls come here to volunteer and have an American experience.
She told me that the girls stay with three different families for three weeks each. We’d only be responsible for feeding and housing her. She’d come to camp with my kids and come home when I pick her up. Tara (who has five kids) told me that every time they host, they never want the girls to leave. They form a great bond, and it’s another helping adult hand in the house. I told her I’d talk to my husband and kids and let her know. I got off the phone as quickly as I could.
Then I started to think about it. Three weeks isn’t so long. Maybe it would be cool to have her here. I would love for my kids to learn about Israel first hand. I have three kids, and I can always use an extra pair of hands. I talked to my husband about it. He thought it sounded cool. My 8-year-old, Aaron, was totally on board. My 11-year-old, Joey, had a lot of logistical questions. Where would she sleep? What would she do? How would this affect him? Could he still play Minecraft after camp?
We answered all of those questions. I texted Tara that we were in.
As the time for her to arrive approached, I got nervous. We don’t eat a lot of fancy dinners. There certainly aren’t as many vegetables on the table as there should be. When we have a sweet potato as a side dish, I’m a rock star. I was definitely going to have to step up my game. I worried about giving her the All-American experience. How would we entertain her? We were going to have her for her birthday and the Fourth of July. I wanted to make her time with us special.
We met Shir at a Shabbat dinner for all of the host families to meet the girls. They were lovely, but quiet. I sat next to Shir, and we talked about the kids, and what she wanted to do while she was here. I gave her my number at the end of the night, and told her we couldn’t wait to have her with us in a few weeks.
I picked her up from camp a few weeks later. By that time, my kids had already started to go to her for Israeli culture, so it was like having a celebrity in the house. The kids were excited. Joey made her a sign for her room, welcoming her. Aaron helped me set up the things on her bed that we bought for her. We had a lovely evening getting to know each other. My husband and I talked with her late into the night asking all kinds of questions about her family and the army.
The first few days were fine. She was an easy houseguest, and as it turned out, she eats even less vegetables than we do. Score! She started to bond with my 2-year-old, because basically Billie will play with anyone who gives her attention. The boys were slow to warm up, but they eventually did.
There’s a thing, though, about someone living with you. They see it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. A few days into her stay, it was one of those days where each and every kid was having an issue. Joey had an incident with another camper and I had to sign a form. Aaron’s counselor told me he hadn’t been eating his lunch all summer. Billie (who was recently potty training) hadn’t quite made it to the bathroom in time. Let’s just say her teachers had to give her a bath and wash her hair.
This was also the one day per week that we have to rush home because we have tutoring and Occupational Therapy. On the way home the boys were fighting. Joey was mad that I took away electronics because of the incident at camp. When we got home the boys started physically fighting while trying to help me unload groceries (because you know it’s really important who carries the cookies into the house). While I broke up the fight I hit my head (HARD) on the door. I started to cry. I just lost it. Plus the tutor and therapist were coming to my house in just a few minutes.
Shir saw me in my moment, and quietly brought the baby into the kitchen with some puzzles while I sorted out the groceries, the boys, and greeted the tutor and therapist. She continued to play with Billie while I took a few moments to collect myself in my bedroom. She was as helpful and compassionate as she could be.
Luckily, that was the only really bad moment the entire time she was with us. The rest of the time was filled with really good memories. On twin day at camp, Joey had no one to be twins with, so Shir volunteered. She borrowed a shirt of mine and matched Joey. I cannot begin to tell you how much that was appreciated.
We introduced her to American donuts. She enjoyed July 4th festivities with us. We celebrated her birthday. I took her outlet shopping. We went out to see my brother play jazz for brunch. We took her to the beach. She had her first Slurpee on 7/11. She played board games (and attempted Minecraft) with the boys. Billie found out Shir had a stash of Israeli chocolate in her suitcase, and quickly made Shir’s room their favorite place to hang out.
Shir made us Israeli food to try. I can’t say shakshuka was a favorite of the kids, but they loved Bamba (a popular peanut butter flavored Israeli snack that I found to be disgusting). She also taught me a few fabulous Hebrew words including my favorite, which is essential when you have three kids you are trying to get out the door. Yalla means let’s go, c’mon already. I say it every day now, and so does Billie.
One day I took out my Birthright album to show her. There was a picture of me with the Mayor of Jerusalem circa 1998. She flipped out over a picture of me with Ehud Olmert. Turns out he became Prime Minister. I had no idea I had a picture with him. We had a good laugh about my selfie with the Prime Minister, way before selfies were even a thing.
It was like we had an older sister visiting from college. She quickly became a helpful, lovely part of our family. She laughed adoringly when the kids did funny things. She helped me wrangle them when I needed an extra pair of hands. She helped with the dishes. She was a gem.
After her three weeks were over, we had to hand her off to another family. While it is nice to just have the five of us together again, I can tell you that we’ll never forget our time with Shir. I look forward to corresponding with her and hearing about her adventures studying at Hebrew University. I hope we’ll see each other again in the near future. Maybe we’ll even take a trip to Israel one day. After all, they have plenty of Bamba there.