A Leap of Faith and Counting Stars (Part One)

It was barely a year ago when my (then) tenth grade daughter expressed her deep and sincere interest to do an exchange program with a student from another country. She had talked about this desire before, but as a single mom in a relatively new area of the country, I didn’t feel remotely prepared for having a fourth child to be responsible for in our home. But last summer, when it came up again, without so much as a second thought, I said “Yeah, okay. Let’s figure it out.”

And thus began a journey of meeting new "family" members that has changed our lives.
My daughter’s school does exchange programs on a regular basis, so it was relatively easy to find an exchange student. Spain, Argentina, and Israel were the immediate choices as participating countries in the program. As Israel quickly became the most viable option, friends and family would ask me how I could consider letting my daughter go there and was I aware of how much violence there was in “that part of the world.” I don’t know how I knew everything would be fine, but I did. From the beginning, this felt like the right place for her to go and I had absolutely no worries about it. Not one. Ever.

My new “son”, Gilad, came to us first, less than two months later to stay for three and a half months. I still remember meeting this tired, unshaven, guitar toting young man at the airport. Just like a mother instantly knows her baby when it is born, we knew immediately that he was “ours” as he walked through security.
His presence brought so many wonderful things to our family. My boys, a ninth and third grader respectively, loved him. A common connection among boys is sports, and soccer, basketball, and swimming became the language for instant friendship between the three of them. My youngest son joined a basketball team this year, and I am sure it was due solely to the personal coaching and encouragement he got from his new "brother".

All of my kids were amazed by how easily new skills came to Gilad. While he was here, he decided to learn how to do a back flip and within 30 minutes had taught himself how do to it on our front yard. When my older son asked him how he did that, he replied “I don’t know. I just believe that I can do it, and I can.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .
One day, a new Jewish friend taught me the word, “bracha”, which means blessing in Hebrew. I was excited to tell Gilad I had learned some Hebrew. He said, “Oh, yes, that is a good word. I do this every morning.” I was curious so I asked for more information from him. He told me every morning before he gets out of bed, he gives blessings for what he has been given. He blesses the air he breathes, the ground beneath his feet, the clothes on his back. He blesses life itself and is so grateful to choose to live it each day. His list goes on.  The stunning thing for me to see as he told me this about his practice was that this 15 year old boy was deeply connected to this ritual, and truly felt a deep appreciation for the things he shared with me. Living in a culture of “whoever has the most toys wins”, I was in awe of his sincerity and belief.

He loved music and one thing I miss is the sound of his guitar strumming in the evenings. He taught himself to play the OneRepublic song, “Counting Stars” while he was here. He used the internet to learn the chords and practiced over and over until he got it right. In learning this song, just like learning to back flip, he taught us that if we put our minds to it, we can do anything.

I wondered for most of his time here what he was receiving from living with us. It was soccer season here, and between school, practices, and games for the three different teams the kids all played on, there wasn’t much time to explore California. School was very different here than it was back home and that was very frustrating to him. I knew he missed home terribly and in fact, there were times when I thought he might leave early.
He did stay until the end as planned. I wondered what he brought home with him from his experience. His father tells me that he sees a new, more mature and accepting young man. He is more content with his life and has a new sense of calmness about him. He tells his father how grateful he was to have been able to live in California. And I imagine there is some sense of gratitude for having his father in his life, as he lived here in a household without one for the first time in his life.

It’s amazing to me to think about our new ties to Israel. It is a country 8,000 miles from us, and misunderstood by many in the world. Despite the warnings of those around us, the bonds forged between our two families were deep and immediate. Gilad’s father and I agree that our children have chosen us, and we are both profoundly grateful for their choosing. Our children, whether by blood or spirit, born or unborn, have so much to share with us when we relax and open our hearts.

In next week’s post, I will share how my daughter’s experience living in Israel gave her soul the nourishment she so deeply needed.


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