EAST COUNTY — As a 12-year-old American girl, it’s hard for Natalie Mount to imagine death and destruction happening outside her living room window.
Mount’s mother, Marni, was pregnant with Natalie during 9/11.
To Natalie, the Twin Towers have little connection to her other than the pictures she sees of them on the Internet or in her classroom at Haile Middle School.
Countries away and 6,616 miles from Natalie’s Mill Creek home, lives a girl in Tel Mond, Israel — Lia Silber — a 12-year-old who finds the daily blare of warning alarms a routine annoyance.
Although the two may seem an unlikely pair, they have become close friends through handwritten letters, emails and pictures of family and friends they have sent to each other since they met in May.
The girls’ emails and handful of written letters to each other started as chats about must-read books — such as the young-adult “Hunger Games” series — school, friends and “girl talk.”
Lia teaches Natalie Hebrew words and phrases and corrects her when she miswrites a phrase, Natalie said, laughing.
But, lately, as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continues, Natalie wonders if the letters will soon stop coming.
The 12-year-olds send letters to each other at least three times a month and correspond via email a few times a week. Earlier this week, Natalie hadn’t heard back from Lia for longer than her usual two-day response time.
“I was really worried about her,” Natalie said, as she glanced over at her mother for an affirmative nod. “I hadn’t heard from her in about a week over email, which is longer than usual. I was hoping she was just on vacation with her family, because she didn’t finish school until the end of June.”
Natalie later received an email from Lia July 26 that said she was fine and was busy doing summer activities.
The girls have been pen pals since they met through Natalie’s synagogue — Temple Emanu-El.
Lia visited Sarasota for a junior playwriting contest to which she was invited because Sarasota and Tel Mond are sister cities.
Sarasota partners with cities in Israel, Dominican Republic, Canada, France, Scotland and a range of other countries in hopes of generating peaceful ties between countries.
The concept of creating a union between two cities dates back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan in the early 1960s to “enhance worldwide understanding one handshake at a time,” states the Sister Cities Association of Sarasota website.
While in town, Lia attended Temple Emanu-El and started talking with Natalie. They have stayed in touch ever since.
“She’s a lot like me,” Natalie said. “We both like to read, and we’re good students. We have a lot of common interests.”
Talking with Lia also meets a requirement Natalie must fulfill to receive a Bat Mitzvah celebration, or Jewish right of passage, Jan. 10. As part of the process, Natalie must complete a minimum of 13 hours toward an activity that benefits the community.
Natalie sees her pen pal relationship as a positive step for both the Jewish community in Manatee and Sarasota counties, as well as in Israel.
“Us talking shows that we, as Americans, care about the Jewish people in Israel,” Natalie said. “It lets Lia know that we’re thinking about Israel.”
Natalie will also volunteer 13 hours at Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue in the fall, because time spent writing letters is less quantifiable than helping at the local shelter, she said.
The other seventh-grade students at Temple Emanu-El’s Hebrew school will write to Jewish children in Israel in the fall.
Marni Mount hopes the girls will continue their friendship for the rest of their lives.
“It’s fun for the girls, and it shows the people in Israel that they have support,” Marni Mount said. “Both sides get to practice the other language, too. Lia’s mother, Tali, is an English teacher in Israel, and I was a teacher, so we’ll talk sometimes.”
Natalie hopes to visit Israel with other members of Temple Emanu-El in June 2015, if the political climate settles, Marni Mount said. Natalie hopes to pay a visit to her friend overseas while there.
Through the letters, Natalie has gained a deeper appreciation for the safety she feels in the United States, and admits she doesn’t understand the conflict in the Middle East.
“Lia — she’s the same age as me, but she’s growing up where bombs are going off,” Natalie said. “She said it’s not scary because she hears alarms all the time, but now she’s hearing them more. She seems used to it. But, if it happened here, now, I’d be pretty scared. But, since we’re only 12, we don’t fully understand the problems. I just want her to be OK.”
EXCERPT FROM LETTER
I’m glad to hear that you are safe and we want you to know that we are thinking of you here in the United States.
Believe it or not, I start back at public school in less than a month. I am going to Disney with my friend this weekend we only live an hour and a half from Disney. We will also be up north to visit my dads family in a few weeks. What else are you doing this summer? I’d live to hear from you soon! Shalom!!
EXCERPT FROM LETTER
First, I’m sorry I’m writing you just now.
Second, you asked about what’s happening in Israel. It’s not the first time this is happening, something like that happened before something like 2 years.
But, it is the first time I heard a alarm in my house. At the last time there were alarm only at the south of Israel but not it’s also at the center (the area I live).
I heard only two alarms until now which it’s nothing compared to Tel-Aviv Where there are two daily alarms, my grandpa and my uncle living there.
Only one man died because of that.
Well, you asked about how I feel about that – I don’t know… I don’t really scared because Israel gat this thing called “Iron dome” which protect us from all the rockets. But I’m angry about the Hamas who saying all the world how bad we are and What happens is our fault.
Anyway, don’t worry me and my family are just fine.
Contact Amanda Sebastiano at firstname.lastname@example.org.