Friendship, like technology, develops. Propelled by a pen-pal pairing nearly nine years ago, the amity between Rosa Myers and Dana Federman has traversed adolescence, linguistic barriers and communicative advances.
Rosa, 16, and Dana, 18, were initially linked by Tsipy Gur, founder and executive director of Classrooms Without Borders.
Connecting the girls would be “empowering,” said Gur, who was introduced to Rosa and her mother, Melissanne (Melissa) Myers, by Michelle Bisno.
Michelle and Tsipy thought that it would be a good project for some of the families at Rodef Shalom Congregation, said Melissa. It was a chance for local kids to partner with Israeli youth at the Carmiel Children’s Village, added Gur.
Located in northern Israel, CCV is home to Dana and approximately 1,000 Israelis between the ages of 4 and 18. Many of the at-risk children are orphans or those unable to live with their families.
“The idea of the village sounded so wonderful, and we are a small family: we are just a family of two,” Melissa said. “The idea that we could have someone special who we are connected to hopefully forever, that was just wonderful.”
So with ink and paper in hand, Rosa, then 7, composed a letter to Dana. A few months later, the 9-year-old replied.
Correspondence evolved, and with adult aid, the girls began emailing one another. As years passed, Rosa and Dana took to Facebook to converse. These days, they message each other weekly through WhatsApp.
Although it began as an almost burdensome task, communicating eased, said Dana.
“Right now, I can talk English and can understand more English and not have to translate every sentence that is said to me,” said the Israeli.
Rosa agreed: “Even when we were using Facebook, I would send her a message and Facebook would translate it. It wouldn’t be the best translation, but it would still be translated so we didn’t have to go through that process. Now that we have WhatsApp and can talk in English. It’s much easier to communicate.”
Like their mechanisms for expression, the girls also evolved, said Melissa.
“They had a lot in common when they were little — some simple things. They both loved animals, their favorite color was blue, they really liked to draw, things like that. And as they got older, they both grew not in the same way, but in ways that complemented each other.”
“We still have the same habits, our child habits, but we just grow,” echoed Dana.
Although the two share certain interests, such as basketball and drinking tea, a wrinkle in their friendship formed last March.
Think of it as a whole family experience. There will be bumps in the road, but the payout is so good. It’s very enriching.
After seven years of sharing somewhat abstract anecdotes through written, typed or swiped communication, the girls finally met. With Gur’s assistance, Rosa traveled to Israel for a volunteering mission at CCV.
“It was amazing and awkward at the same time,” said Rosa.
The girls explained that in a nod to contemporary deportment, their quasi-introduction was interrupted by a group member who yelled, “We didn’t get it on camera; we need to do it again.”
So as phones were raised and set to video, the friends recreated their initial meeting.
Rosa and Dana laugh about the episode now, but the surrounding experience was strange, explained the Quaker Valley student. “It was really weird because this is an actual person who has been my rock for so long in so many situations. But when you actually get to hug someone who you’ve been talking with for so long, it is oddly comforting and weird at the same time.”
Over the course of 10 days in Israel, Rosa got to know Dana and the other children in Dana’s mishpachton (residential unit).
The difficulty for Melissa was that she felt like she missed out, as for years she had “nurtured” the relationship to keep it going.
“There was a period when Rosa was so busy with school and there was a period when she was just shy,” said Melissa. To counter those stretches, it was necessary to jump in as an additional pen pal, the mother said. “It just seemed like it would be sad if it was lost.”
Dana welcomed Melissa’s activity, as it spurred a new friendship.
“When people would ask me, I would tell them that I am chatting with my pen pal who is a mother and a daughter, not just a daughter,” Dana said.
“What was really nice for us was that I got to make connections too,” said Melissa, “so it was very family. It wasn’t just two kids off by themselves. And I have to admit, I thought it would have been enough to send Rosa to Israel. But then I was jealous, I wanted to meet Dana.”
So the Myers put together a plan.
“We are not an affluent family,” said Melissa, “We had to really prioritize. We had been saving for a long time to do a special trip, and then we just thought about [how] it would be much more special to bring Dana here.”
This past week, their efforts were achieved as Dana arrived for a two-week stay in Pittsburgh.
The uniquely commonplace experience has been tremendous, explained the Israeli, who upon arrival informed her hosts that she “wanted to see what America is like.”
“So we went on errands,” said Melissa.
As opposed to initially venturing to museums or the Incline, the group traveled to Costco, Lowe’s and the bank.
“It was so much fun for me to see what she was amazed at,” said Melissa.
Among their enjoyment of certain national normalities, the group detoured to Frick Park, where they observed a bevy of trees and their leaves of changing colors.
“I love autumn, but I forget what it looks like to outsiders,” said the mother.
Much is on the agenda for Dana’s stay, said Rosa, as next week the trio will travel to New York for a short trip.
Reflecting on the last few days, in light of the previous nine years of correspondence, the journey has been a welcomed adventure, said Dana. “I feel really comfortable with them; they’re like my family.”
The Myers echoed the sentiment and said that much has been gained through pen palling.
“I learned a lot about her perspective of Israel,” said Melissa.
For Rosa, it was a realization that much is needed to maintain a long-distance friendship.
“It was awkward in the beginning, but I had a lot of support from my mom. Once you get past that first step, having a pen pal is something to look forward to,” she said.
Working on the project together “was good for us too, for our connection,” added Melissa.
For those interested in adopting a similar pen-pal endeavor, parents should “remember that children are children, and they can’t conceive of time.
Sometimes writing will feel like a burden or confusing: it’s the grownups’ job to help nurture the early stages,” said Melissa.
“Think of it as a whole family experience,” she added. “There will be bumps in the road, but the payout is so good. It’s very enriching.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz