He was a little chubby, dressed in normal schoolboy clothes with a backpack slung over one shoulder. Probably ten-years-old, certainly not more than twelve, he boarded the bus and scanned the passengers. Purposely he made his way to the woman sitting in front of me.
“Can I have ten shekels to pay the driver? I need to go on two buses.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth my memory bank scrambled into action. Thirty years earlier one of my children had been coming back from school. At that time, we were fresh immigrants living in an absorption center outside of Jerusalem. Every morning our children rode a special bus directly to their school but on the way home they needed to take two buses.
In the beginning we joined in with a group of other parents, all of whom were terrified to have our children traveling the public transportation system alone in Israel. What if our child got lost or, even worse, kidnapped? We pooled together and hired a private van to bring our children home. However, after the first month we discovered that the driver was taking other fares on our time. The children were coming later than if they’d come by bus. By mutual decision we all decided to set up a buddy system and throw them to the wolves.
They acclimated quickly, more quickly than we expected. However, one afternoon my son boarded the first bus and discovered his bus card that normally hung around his neck was missing. Back then bus fare was probably no more than thirty agarot* and a bus card with twenty rides for a child cost no more than three shekels, less than a dollar. So, he hadn’t had a major loss. Still, how was he going to be able to get home without his card? Thankfully, he had his buddy who told the driver to take an extra punch out of his card.
Whew! He made it home okay, got another card the following day, and had the driver take an extra punch for his buddy. Problem was solved and he went on with his life. I was traumatized. What if his buddy hadn’t been there? My son couldn’t call us. There were no phones in our absorption center apartment.
I confided my fears to my ulpan** teacher. She smiled in appreciation of my concerns and shook her head.
“No child in Israel would be kicked off the bus if they didn’t have the fare. If the driver didn’t pay for him one of the passengers would have.”
I looked at her skeptically. She’d lived in Israel her whole life and certainly understood the people better than I did. Still, though, I wondered.
Now, in the year 2017, when bus fare has risen ten times, I saw a child without a card. Before the woman if front of me could answer his request another woman across the aisle announced she had ten shekels. As she searched first her left pocket, and then her right, and then her bag the woman opposite her opened her purse and at the same time I lifted mine up. Quicker to the draw was the woman originally asked.
She handed over a ten shekel coin. After the boy paid the driver he came back to thank her.
“With pleasure,” she answered.
So I saw firsthand that my ulpan teacher was right. If four people were jumping to come to the rescue of one little boy now, I can only imagine how many more would have done so back then. Just one of the many reasons I’m glad I live in Israel.
*a hundreth of a shekel
**Hebrew school for adults