| The Great Escape |

Gone West   

Mishpacha contributors share accounts of those special summers disconnected from the grind

Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Years: Early 2000s
That relaxing stillness of vacation — the pre-dawn hikes, the lazy Phoenix afternoons — followed us everywhere. Nothing had to get done, no homework, no friend drama, none of the pressures of a budding teenager.


Today was too long — too many slipups with my kids and too much drama in my work life and too many meals to cook and serve and clean. I need a break. I need a disconnect. I need my sister.

My fingers work from muscle memory — how many times did I go down this route as a teenager and then as a young adult?!  — and “Flights to Phoenix” shows up in the search bar, as if of its own volition.

Maybe you’ve heard of Phoenix? But I’m not talking about extravagant Pesach hotels. I’m not talking about the cute vacation destination where you stay so you’re a short drive from the Grand Canyon or Sedona’s famous red rocks, or where you pay to ride a camel and take a picture next to a cactus. I’m talking about my second home.

My sister Cindy and her husband Rabbi Raphael Landesman moved to Phoenix in May of 2000 as kiruv pioneers, to build an oasis of Torah in the literal desert. I was just starting middle school, and what this meant for my family in Woodmere, New York, was that we now had a reason to go west.

The first few times we made the trip, we did all the regular tourist attractions: Castles N’ Coasters mini-golf, motorboating on Lake Pleasant, Jeeping through the Sedona desert. But after a few visits, it got old — actually, it got normal. For us, Phoenix became a place to reconnect with family and to chill — in 110-plus degree weather (but it’s a dry heat, right? For the record, so is your oven).

The day I discovered that kids between the ages of 11 and 15 could fly as unaccompanied minors was a game changer. It meant I, the youngest in the family, could leave my parents and older siblings, who hated the heat or had other obligations back home, and visit Phoenix alone.

Soon it became a minhag of sorts: I would spend the first half of the summer out west with Cindy followed by a few weeks in camp. So strong was this tradition that when I got married, I made sure to bring my new husband to Phoenix to meet the community members who over the years had become a part of my life.

Phoenix and the Five Towns were like night and day. For those few weeks in the summer, I was disconnected from the frum amenities of home: the hundreds of kosher eateries and countless school, shul, and camp options in the Five Towns just didn’t exist in Phoenix.

Our weekdays were filled with Slurpee runs to the Circle-K across the street, trips to the mega-size Walmart (the likes of which I’d never seen back in New York), and an occasional National Geographic-type IMAX. But mostly Phoenix was about being with Cindy and her family: enjoying a pancake breakfast after sleeping late into the morning, a calm afternoon, and a post-supper game of Pictionary that had us schmoozing well into the night.

On Fridays, we cooked the entire morning in preparation for Shabbos, the smell of fresh challah (no kosher bakery!) permeating my sister’s home. I learned how to make potato kugel all by myself and watched her put together a feast in just a few hours. Nothing that was a patchkeh, just lots of tasty food.

In the early years, my sister rented space in an outdoor apartment complex. The entrances to each unit opened right into a beautiful scene of green, with palm trees and cacti growing along rock beds sprinkled with exotic plants and bushes. The complex — in fact, all of the Phoenix I recall — had a quaint, clean look. Pretty and modest stucco homes with landscapes of over a hundred varieties of trees I’d never seen before became a familiar backdrop over the years.

My sister didn’t have a television —for me this was the ultimate disconnect. So used to having a constant TV presence at home, it came as a shock to me that in Phoenix, I was rarely bored. I spent time playing with my niece and nephews and reading my way through Cindy’s great selection of English Jewish books. Small Miracles was one of my first influential reads; nothing is coincidence, it taught me, giving my young self a new perspective on everyday life.

That relaxing stillness of vacation followed us everywhere. Nothing had to get done, save for a few summer reading books assigned by school. No homework, no friend drama, none of the pressures of a budding teenager.

Some of my best Phoenix memories are from pre-dawn summer hikes we took up Squaw Peak, a jagged mountain with a popular trail that serves as many a Phoenician’s morning run (it took us two hours round trip, but the more seasoned hikers can do it in 90 minutes). We’d pass chipper-looking joggers in their 60s who were heading down as we huffed our way up to the summit and looked out at the expanse of buildings and parks, a bustling city waking for a new day.

This is accomplishment, I thought. No one telling you what to do or breathing down your back that you’ve got to do it. Just making it to the finish line because you want to, and feeling the pride.

Sometimes my sister had to work (she was a speech therapist who later started the kollel’s women’s division), so she’d either take me along or leave me to lounge around. Her kollel job was, to me, the coolest on the planet — she got paid to (among other responsibilities) sit at Starbucks and learn with women who wanted to know more about Judaism. I listened in awe as she explained deep philosophical concepts in a bite-size manner that kept women wanting more.

Much of Phoenix’s frum community lived far from their shul of choice (even with a limited Orthodox population, there was a Young Israel, a Kollel minyan, a Chabad, Bucharian shuls, and still a few others), and back when Cindy first moved, there was no eiruv. Some people lived in more affluent neighborhoods that weren’t even within walking distance, so they moved into a “Shabbos home” once a week.

Today my sister lives in a house that is a relatively short walk from shul, and there is an eiruv, but the complex she lived in at first was a mile from shul. Come Shabbos, we’d trek in the sweltering heat, sans water bottles because we couldn’t carry, our only respite the occasional palm tree’s shade.

The people in Phoenix, many of them newly observant, overflowed with dedication and passion, I realized. Sure, I’d hiked as a camper, but Jewish roughing it was totally foreign to me. In Woodmere, there were at least ten shuls in a half-mile radius of my house — and whoever heard of Shabbos without an eiruv?! All of my Five Towns neighbors were frum or knowledgeable enough about Judaism, but in the complex, the majority of the residents weren’t Jewish, at least not visibly; one Succos, the local kids kept asking if they could play in our clubhouse hut.

In my sister’s home, there was a strong focus on guests, and they hosted several family units a week between Friday night and Shabbos lunch. (All of their guests walked, in the scorching heat, just to sit at a Shabbos table of warmth and authenticity.) Social butterfly that I was, I loved chatting away with them all: newly frum couples, exploring teens, eccentric older singles, and the city’s old-timers. This wasn’t something I could access in New York, where the people I knew didn’t need such support because their extended families were frum and lived nearby. My home was frum; my school and my community were frum, and in my young view of the world, people were fine with their Judaism the way it was. No one I knew was searching as devotedly as my sister’s guests were, or at least admitting to it, but here in Phoenix I was meeting people willing to uproot everything and make major changes for Yiddishkeit.

Do I believe that strongly in my own observance? Do I need to learn more, ask more? I would wonder. In Phoenix, in the quiet of the summer far from home, I could sit and actually think about these questions.

One day, I’ll build a home like this, where people from all walks of life come to learn Torah, I thought. Where it’s fun and cute and young, and where the community is family.

AS all good things do, year after year, my summer visit had to come to an end after a few weeks. I can see myself rocking slowly on the swing outside Cindy’s house; I didn’t even bother holding back tears at the thought of flying back to New York. It wasn’t just leaving my only sister and the luxuries of vacation behind, it was also going back to school, back to the grind, back to the struggle of real life.

I often couldn’t even bring myself to say goodbye. Instead, Cindy and I would share a silent, loose hug, holding back from expressing what was too hard to verbalize.

Slowly, I would walk through the airport in denial, turning away from the Grand Canyon scene on the wall that mocked me on my departure. I’d board the plane already thinking about my next trip back, my next chance to escape.

In my youth, Southwest and JetBlue could transport me from New York to Phoenix in a heartbeat. Now my husband, children, and I live in Jerusalem, so Phoenix is not the most convenient place to run off to, and the trip is long, exhausting, and prohibitively expensive.

But it just so happens that a couple of weeks ago I flew out to Phoenix with my oldest daughter. It was a gift like no other, a chance to recharge and to reclaim a taste of all the things that motivated me as a child looking up to my big sister. It was a chance to once again visit that dream home, the one where I half-grew up. And you know what I realized? I’m building my own dream home, right here in Jerusalem, on the foundations of everything I learned when I disconnected — and really connected — in Phoenix.


Mindel Kassorla is a teacher, writer, and shadchan who lives with her family in Jerusalem.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1019)

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