Recently, my 13-year-old went on a four-day music festival trip with his school. It was the first time he traveled for an extended period of time without us. When I was nervously thinking about all the ways I wanted to prepare him for the trip, I was reminded of what happened to me 20 years earlier when I was traveling solo.
During the summer of 1996, I volunteered on an Israeli army base. I was a smart, yet somewhat naïve 22-year-old who had just graduated from college, with a corporate consulting job waiting for me at the end of July. I had two months after graduation until my job started, and since I had never been to Israel, I decided this was the best time to go. I was excited to immerse myself in Israeli “army” culture through the Volunteers for Israel program and also travel around the country. So I packed a summer’s worth of stuff in an oversized backpack and flew to Israel.
We had the weekends “off,” so one weekend I decided to visit Jerusalem for the first time. I was planning to stay overnight at a women’s hostel which did not open until 4 p.m. It was 1:00 p.m. and I was sitting on a bench alone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in the scorching 100 degree heat with that huge backpack on my back. I was thirsty and had to use the restroom. It seemed like optimal timing when a man with what looked like an official government badge hanging around his neck came over to me.
He was a short, thin man, maybe around 40 years old. He spoke good English (I didn’t speak Hebrew) and asked if I needed anything. I said, “Yes, where is the closest restroom and water fountain?” He walked me to the restroom and when I exited I was surprised to see him still standing there. He immediately said, “I am a government licensed tour guide and I can show you around.” Initially I said, “Oh no, that’s OK. My friends are close by and I will be meeting up with them soon.” But this was a time before cellphones, in a foreign city, and the truth was that I wasn’t meeting up with them until later that day at the hostel.
The “tour guide” was persistent and seemed genuinely interested in showing me around “my homeland’s” beautiful city of Jerusalem, so I figured why not? We started to walk through the winding ancient stone pathways of the Old City. At first he was actually very informative and interesting. Shortly and unexpectedly, we were up high with a perfect view of the Wailing Wall.
At that point, there were fewer people around, and the man was inching closer. I had already figured out that Israelis have a different view of personal space than I was used to in America, but each time I inched away, he came closer.
In that instant, I knew something wasn’t right. The only people nearby were a few French tourists (I don’t speak French). And then I looked down and saw that he had an erection under his khaki pants. I was dripping with sweat, my heart was suddenly pounding, I still had that huge backpack on my back, AND I didn’t know my way around the Old City labyrinth.
But my instincts told me to start walking in one direction. He followed close behind, insisting that he had more to show me. At first I was polite, trying not to call attention to my fear. However, a few moments later, a primal power came over me that I had never felt before in my life. I looked him in the eye and firmly asserted, “We are done. You are getting me down from here and you are doing it right NOW!”
There were no tears yet, but I felt them building as I lumbered down through the maze, not knowing where I was headed. At one point, I remember a woman sticking her head out of the window of her home above and shaking her finger at me, as if to tell me don’t hang with him. It’s too late, lady, I already know that. A few more winding pathways later, there was an open “doorway” to a bustling courtyard.
Within a split second of entering that doorway, and with a look of shear panic on my face, a young man popped up and came running over to me. He instantly pretended to know me and voiced how concerned he was looking for me. I collapsed in his arms and started hysterically crying. I couldn’t speak, yet he immediately knew I was trying to get away from the “tour guide” and shouted at him to leave me alone. It took a minute of shouting exchanges but finally the “tour guide” walked away.
My hero was an American guy named Jason, a few years older than me, who was studying at a nearby Yeshiva. He too was from New York and had also graduated from the same college a few years before me. I was in complete disbelief that at the precise moment when I walked into the courtyard, I was immediately “rescued.” The truth is that if Jason hadn’t appeared, I wasn’t sure what to do since I was on the verge of a crying explosion, didn’t speak Hebrew, and I didn’t yet know this man wasn’t an official tour guide. Who was going to believe me?
Jason took me to the police station to report what happened. I was insistent on looking through every single mugshot in their collection. Unfortunately, I didn’t find him, but we found out that he was a known fake tour guide in the area who had preyed on other women before me. Jason took me to my hostel later that day and made sure I knew where his Yeshiva was located in case I needed anything. That was the last time we saw each other.
I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of my time in Israel and even traveled to Egypt. I definitely grew up on that trip and graduated from being an innocent young woman to a confident and vigilant adult. We should never be too trusting, even in our own backyard or “ancestral homeland.” That’s one lesson I hope I’ve effectively begun to impart to my son.