Highland Park, New Jersey is very far from Cleveland, Ohio. On the map it's about 450 miles, but emotionally, it's much farther than that. That's how Gershon Goodman felt when he walked into the Nachmanides School on the first day of third grade. He missed his friends. He missed his home. He even missed the Cleveland Indians, though they were having a particularly bad season.
The kids in his class seemed nice enough, but everyone was pretty much ignoring him. His teacher, Mrs. Schwartzbaum, introduced him (thank G-d she didn't make him stand up at his desk) and had him explain how his family had moved to New Jersey so that his father could start a new job at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Everyone seemed interested, but at recess, Gershon sat alone and watched the boys play football. At home, he would have been the quarterback, but now he wasn't even on the bench. It was going to be a long year.
After lunchtime, the principal of the school, Rabbi Rosenbaum, asked to see him. Gershon wondered how he could already be in trouble on the first day of school. But actually, Rabbi R. called him in to greet him, and to tell him how he used to live in Cleveland, too. He pulled out a signed picture of Omar Vizquel from the Indians, which was pretty cool.
When Gershon returned to class, something was different. It felt like everyone wanted to sit next to him. Boys--and even girls-- in the class were including him in conversations. Girls! That was really weird.
Mrs. Schwartzbaum was talking about Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate. Gershon tried to pay attention to her, but every time his eyes wandered and he looked around the classroom, someone was staring at him. And smiling.
At afternoon recess, he was chosen to play football. He wasn't the quarterback--yet-- but he did catch a few passes. Everyone seemed very encouraging any time he came near the ball. Almost too encouraging.
Before the bell rang, a group of boys came over to chat.
A boy named Mikey invited him for a playdate.
A boy named Eric invited him to ride bikes.
Yonatan wanted him to come over too. Suddenly he was very much in demand.
"Gershon, come to my house. I have really cool Lego," Mikey said.
"That's nothing, I have a Hot Wheels set that will blow your mind." Eric countered.
"I have Bionicles," Yonatan said with confidence, as if that put the matter to rest.
Gershon looked down at his sneakers, fidgeting with his hands, as the stakes grew higher.
"I have cable TV," Mikey said.
"I have all six Star Wars movies and Lord of the Rings," Yonatan said. "And can you say Harry Potter?"
"My Dad just put in Surround Sound," Yonatan said.
Gershon smiled politely. He had no idea what Surround Sound was, but it certainly seemed to impress his new New Jersey friends.
Gershon wasn't sure what all this new attention meant, but if his father had been there at that moment, he would probably have said, "Gersh, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." (Where was Kansas, anyway?)
"Can I get back to you?" Gershon asked the crowd. "I have to ask my Mom."
"No problemo," Eric said. "It's an open invitation."
"Likewise," Mikey said. "Anytime."
The bell rang, and Gershon returned to class with the others.
When the school day ended, Gershon met his mother in front of the school in the carpool lane.
"How was your first day?" she asked as he climbed in the car.
"I'm really not sure," Gershon said.
"What do you mean?"
"The first half was pretty bad, and the second half was just weird."
And then he proceeded to tell his mother how his classmates had changed as the day went on.
"Isn't that good?" Mrs. Goodman asked. "you have a lot of potential friends."
"I guess," Gershon said. "I just want to know what the heck is going on."
"I'll see if I can figure it out when we get home." Gershon's mom said.
She emailed Gila Schwartzbaum soon after they got home, telling her some of the details of Gershon's day, and the teacher called her back a few minutes later.
"Hi, Mrs. Goodman, how can I help you?"
"Gershon is a bit confused. First he felt left out, then after lunch he felt overwhelmed by the attention he was getting. He's kind of wondering what's going on, and truth be told, so am I."
"I guess that's my fault," Gila Schwartzbaum explained. "I noticed Gershon was feeling left out in the morning, so after lunch I sent him to meet Rabbi Rosenbaum and gave the class a pep talk."
"That must have been quite a talk."
"Actually, it was a dvar Torah about this week's parsha, Behar. I read to them about the laws regarding a ger vetoshav, a stranger among us. I explained how in the Torah, the law of ve-ahavta le reyacha kamocha, to love your neighbor as yourself, is written only once, but the laws regarding kindness and respect for a stranger are mentioned 36 times. So clearly it's very important to be kind and welcoming to strangers"
"Wow, that's very powerful."
"Yeah, I know. But I guess I came on a little too strong with the kids. I'll have them tone it down a bit tomorrow, so Gershon isn't freaked out."
"And Mrs. Goodman?"
"Please, call me Shira."
"Ok, Shira. I'm Gila. If you ever need a helping hand, or a shoulder to lean on, give me a call. I know it's hard to move to a new place, and I would be happy to help any way I can."
"That all depends," Shira Goodman said.
"On whether you have Surround Sound or not."