“Man, is it hot out here!” a girl with a distinct New York accent called out. “Where’s the next Howard Johnson’s? I need a milkshake!”

What kind of a nut job is she? I wondered. We were hiking in the middle of the Sinai Desert. It was August, and she was right that it was really hot. But there were obviously no Howard Johnson’s restaurants around. What was her story?

Around the next bend, I met the girl behind the New York accent. Her name was Jenny, she had a riotous sense of humor, and she was, of course, just joking. But when I first heard her, I didn’t realize that.

I'd heared all religious girls were cliquey and straight laced

I had come to Israel for my junior year of college, and I had just completed a summer ulpan (intensive Hebrew course) at the University of Haifa. That’s where the students from California did our ulpan, before moving to Jerusalem for the remainder of the year. The other students on the Junior Year Abroad program did their ulpan at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Sinai trip was the first time the California kids were with everyone else. I was to learn that, unlike the Californians, most of the non-Californians were religious.

Now, I had heard from a friend in Los Angeles that all religious girls were straight-laced, cliquey and snobby. Since I wasn’t observant, I was told that religious girls wouldn’t want to have anything to do with the likes of me. And I was assured that I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, either.

So it was with great surprise that I met this friendly, humorous religious girl on our hike. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but I do remember liking Jenny right away. Neither she nor I were avid hikers, and we ended up bringing up the rear together as we trekked up “Jabal Musa”—the commonly used Arabic name for “Moses’ Mountain,” which some believe to be Mount Sinai.

Jenny was not only not cliquey, she was super all-inclusive. She was friends with students from across the spectrum—secular, religious, right wing, left wing, super intellectual, anti-intellectual. She didn’t care who you were, or what you believed, so long as you were willing to be friends.

Jenny was so different from me. She was from Manhattan; I was from Los Angeles. I went to UC Berkeley, a public university; she went to a hoity-toity private girls’ college, Bryn Mawr. I had a stay-at-home mom; hers was a college professor. Our biggest difference was that she was from a religious family, and I was not. But none of it mattered. She was great fun to be with, and we became fast friends. And her religious friends were nice too! Surprise, surprise.

In those days, there were no cell phones. Often, Jenny would knock on my door and say something like, “Hey, a bunch of us are going to a concert. You wanna come?” Or, “My parents are coming to visit next week. Can you go out to dinner with us for New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv?”

To that one, I answered, “I’d love to go, but I really don’t have anything fancy to wear . . .”

“Fancy, schmancy!” she answered. “Who cares?”

I had been so convinced that religious girls were snobby and cliquey that it took me a while to realize that Jenny was neither. When I would go to the concert, or picnic, or whatever she was doing, I was never left on the side. She talked to me and made sure I felt included, even if there were a dozen others. And I think that she did that for everyone. I thought I’d somehow be like a poor cousin, since I was not a sophisticated New Yorker, nor religious. But I came to see that Jenny really liked me and accepted me for who I was. She didn’t care that I wasn’t like her. It didn’t matter to her what I wore, or what anyone else wore, for that matter.

She always included me for Shabbat meals with her religious friends. The religious kids didn’t stay in their dorm rooms Friday nights or go to the disco. They got together for potluck Shabbat meals for dinner and lunch, which were so much fun! The kids told jokes and stories and sang Shabbat songs. I was shocked that, in the late seventies, when it seemed uncool to have group sing-alongs, these kids loved singing Shabbat songs! I was attracted to the sense of community the religious kids had, and I loved going to those Shabbat meals. The others there didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t religious; they welcomed me as one of the gang.

Little by little, I decided that I, too, wanted to become more observant. And Jenny helped me, answering my questions without judgment. I remember her sitting with me as I slowly made my way through Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, long after everyone else had zipped through it.

They welcomed me as one of the gang

She became one of my closest friends.

Jenny returned to Bryn Mawr, and I to UC Berkeley. We actually stayed in touch by mail. I now live in Israel, and Jenny’s in Atlanta. Luckily for the two of us, she visits Israel twice a year to spend time with her kids and grandkids, and of course, to see me.

Recently, Jenny was in Israel for a couple of months, and we got together several times. I commented to her that I was thankful that I didn’t let my preconceived notions about religious girls keep me from becoming her friend.

“Are you kidding?” she replied. “I’d have made you be my friend even if you didn’t want to!”

What a friend.