When a couple of Jewish Sunday school teachers happened be seated next to one another on a plane in 1972, nobody could have predicted it would spark a beautiful fire of friendship that would dance across generations.
We don’t know their names. What we do know is that one was a teacher at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun of Milwaukee’s East Side at the time, the other at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. They probably met on a plane to or from Israel.
They decided their classes would exchange letters and that’s how Linda Gorens-Levey, then 12, got her pen pal, Vered Shacham. That was the spark. What came next was the fire, but it was a slow burn, to be sure.
In their 20s, the pen pal relationship slowed down somewhat, even as the pen pals’ parents got to meet in Milwaukee in 1982.
Julie Gorens-Winston, the American pen pal’s sister, visited Israel. “I remember my mother took her a few times to the beach and she loved it,” recalled Shacham, the Israeli pen pal, in an email.
The pen pals, however, slowed their contacts as they focused on different things. Shacham was in the Israeli army and Linda Gorens-Levey was in college.
But they stayed in touch and as technology progressed, they were able to switch from tri-fold, onionskin international letters to email and more. As both grew older, a phone call for Rosh Hashanah became possible.
What’s remarkable is that the pair didn’t meet until 2006, about 36 years after the start of the pen pal relationship. Before then and since then, their respective families have been exchanging visits and contact, so much so that for Gorens-Levey’s son, Ben, a recent trip to Israel was a chance to ask questions about his own family.
What was my grandfather like? How did he relate to people? What was he like in conversation?
“For me it was really meaningful to hear those stories about my grandfather,” he said, “imagining them … 40, 50 years ago, whatever it was.”
Ben Levey, 21, is a senior at Northwestern University, majoring in American studies. The Nicolet High School graduate thinks about entering academia, or law school for civil rights law.
“I always heard these stories growing up, of my mom’s pen pal,” Levey said. Last year, he watched his mother fret over where the fires were in Haifa, checking online. Thus, the pen pal relationship has informally accomplished what so many American-Israeli partnership programs strive to foster – an enduring, personal connection with Israel.
Shacham and her sister have adult children roughly the same age as Ben Levey. Today, Ben Levey and his brother, Jacob Levey, keep in touch with some of them through social media. Ben Levey noted during an interview that he had just “liked” something from them on Instagram.
He said he’s grateful “to have a personal connection to Israel.”
“Hopefully, this is something we can sustain,” he said, adding that he hopes to “pass it on” someday to the next generation.
“The whole story is amazing,” said Shacham, marveling at how two girls had an assignment in elementary school and now “after 45 years we still keep the connections, also between the next generation.”