We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
I grew up in Richmond, VA. My first year of college, I wanted to live in the Virginia mountains and study music. G-d had other plans, but that story is for a different article. In 1996, I transferred from Roanoke College to Emory University in Atlanta. I was a spiritual seeker and found an incredibly warm, vibrant and highly dynamic Orthodox community near the University.
After searching for and engaging in just about every spiritual tradition, this wandering Jew found his home. As I grew in Torah and began observing Shabbat, I felt it was time to make my first trip to Israel in 1998. I signed up for a program at a Chabad institution called Mayanot. I was ready to travel across the world, back to the Promised Land of the Jewish people.
When I arrived, I had no idea what I was doing. The yeshiva sent a driver to pick me up from the airport. He was likely told to look for the naïve, wandering American kid. Perfect description. So the Chabadnick driver comes to Ben Gurion airport, and I heard him shouting, “Caplan! Caplan!” before telling me he was going to take me to Mayanot.
As we were driving, I tried to get used to the intense spiritual feeling of the land of Israel. And then this conversation happened…
Chabadnick: “Where are you from, Caplan?”
Me: “I am from Richmond.”
Chabadnick: “Wow, so am I.”
Chabadnick: “Yeah, Rabbi Berman was my Rabbi.”
Me: “Well, he was mine also.”
Chabadnick: “How about that. And where are you in college?”
Me: “I am at Emory.”
Chabadnick: “Funny, I went to school there, too.”
Me: “You can’t be serious.”
So, I asked him the obvious question: “At what age does my beard turn white?”
That was my first experience ever in Israel, and it was a good indicator of what was to come. Everyone I met had a story to tell – a piece of the puzzle to give me direction to the next adventure. I bumped into so many people that told me a part of the story needed, that I gave up using the word ‘coincidence’.
Studying in Jerusalem was living in a dream. I studied Chassidic thought; prayed in a Sephardic, Tunisian synagogue; danced with Chassidim in Meron; played music in Nachalot on Motzei Shabbat. I learned about every stream of Judaism and school of thought that I could possibly get my hands on.
When I returned to the States, I had enough information to choose the path of Modern Orthodoxy, with a focus on the great Sephardic tradition. My time in Israel gave me the opportunity to not only find Judaism in books, but even more importantly, living with the incredible people I met every day. It was a beautiful double blessing that I remember with gratitude every day.