From a distance, they look like a group of thirtysomethings who have gathered on a shady piece of grass in the Ramat Gan National Park. When you get closer, however, you hear sounds that are not characteristic of the other middle-class groups that have come to the park the same Shabbat morning, loaded down with snack foods, children and troubles to discuss.
Under this particular tree, you can hear bursts of uncontrolled laughter, and between the hugs, members of the group pull out fading photographs from the school yard in the 1970s. A few children run around on the grass in the stifling heat, stopping occasionally to lick some ice cream or munch on pretzels, staring all the while at their parents, sprawled on the grass like third-graders. Which is exactly what these adults are remembering - this is a reunion of the third grade class of 1976 at the Janusz Korczak elementary school in Ramat Gan.
Waves of nostalgia have recently been washing over the graduates of this class. It began as a message that one of them left at the Hevre (buddies) Web site (hevre.co.il), and continued as others discovered it and responded. As the e-mail communications picked up momentum, Meirav Tsabari decided to locate all her long lost friends from her school days.
"I was sure from the beginning that I had to find them all," she says. "I logged onto the site and saw that several had already begun to correspond. I was very jealous. I began to send out e-mails. Fanny (another graduate) and I began to bother [our friends'] mothers. Within two weeks we had found all 31 people from the class. I never imagined it would go so fast."
Apart from a few individuals who said that they would rather not remember their elementary school days, most of the graduates quickly joined the reunion party. At first they had planned to meet in August. Sharon Veiner, who now lives in Scotland, volunteered her parents' home for the meeting and made plans to visit Israel for the occasion.
"As soon as we started talking, however, we didn't have the patience to wait until August," explains Anat Ronen. "We knew we had to organize another meeting before then." That's when they came up with the idea to get together in the park two weeks ago, even though they knew that not everyone could make it.
"I was very excited this morning," Ronen admits. "I just couldn't wait until 10:30 to leave the house for the reunion. It's nice. Very nice. Kudos to whoever created the Web site. They are real geniuses, and we owe them a lot of thanks."
"At first, when I saw them," says Fanny Ben-Muha, "I got goose bumps all over."
"Look at us - we get together after 18 years and connect right away," says Tsabari, "We are picking up the conversation where we left off at the end of eighth grade. There is no distance [between us]. No one is sitting on the sidelines."
Ronen and Ronit Harel are sitting together, with Tali Sarid-Tshuva between them. "We used to be bosom buddies, friends heart and soul," says Ronen.
"They were the trio that went everywhere," explains Tsabari. "If someone was having a party, he would say that Ronit, Tali and Anat would be there so that everyone else would come."
Sarid-Tshuva recalls how they would take off during physical education class to run across the street and buy chocolate instead of running around the building. Nissim Avishar reminisces about a paper he wrote about drugs, and Ben-Muha remembers a girl who joined the class after the evacuation of Yamit, in 1982. "She was so miserable. She cried all the time," Ben-Muha recalls.
The graduates came with spouses and children, but keep telling one another that they haven't changed. "At first I was afraid I would get here and not recognize anyone," says Avishar, "but that didn't happen. The faces are all still the same." Even though these are 31-year-olds who until that morning were tiny flat images with ridiculous haircuts that filled his childhood memories.
Documenting our lives
Since 2002 over 180,000 people have visited the hevre Web site in order to relax with images from the past and to dig up memories from days gone by. They hunt for people from their elementary school days, from high school, youth groups, the army, from university and from former workplaces, form new groups, reminisce, and try to bring lost acquaintances into the new worlds they have created for themselves over the years.
Hevre is filling up. It's database of registered members is broadening and the social network is branching out. Anonymity, it turns out, is far from the name of the game played by the new communities that have sprung up around Nahal (soldier-settler) groups from the 1960s or forgotten start-up companies. People who register at Hevre enter with their true identities, in order to find friends from their past. People who have never corresponded via the Internet find themselves logging onto the Net and having difficulty logging off. The members of these communities are linked by their common past. "I'm really not an Internet type," says Sarid-Tshuva, "but since the beginning of March, I log on to the Internet at least once a day, because of this site. Almost everyone from the class says he has suddenly become a computer freak."
"Shai has been literally glued to the Internet since this all began," says Hagit Magen, Shai's wife. "All day he waits for messages from his class buddies."
According to Hevre's operators, about 3,000 new members join the site every day, and its hard to estimate the number of "lurkers," who visit Hevre without registering and quietly view images from the past.
The nostalgia pours from the keyboard and surfers chatter with their friends from elementary school, hunt for ex-girlfriends and boyfriends from high school and complain about their commanding officers in the army.
"It has really become a hit," says Shlomi Unger, 23, of the site he manages with his partner in the Mahshava software company, Shlomi Waldman. Six software personnel work at the site, handling about 600 messages from members every day. "Surfers demand improvements and updates and send us a lot of excited responses. It is a tremendous flow of a crazy ego trip. This site is the real Internet. It is the personal dimension of the medium. The Jewish people is crazy about documenting history."
A friendly pat on the back
The idea to set up Hevre began when the founders wanted to organized a reunion of their youth group and decided to set up a special Web site for the event. Since then Hevre has become the virtual reunion for every Israeli with an Internet connection. "This is identified Internet, with real people," explains Unger. "If everyone entered with nicknames, it would destroy the site. We're not talking about virtual relationships, but rather about real relationships between people who use virtual means that we provide them."
Unger admits that he did not expect such a response from surfers. "We thought that Israelis would be cynical. Everyone talks about the anonymous Internet, and we thought that no one would type in their real particulars. But it turns out that the connection between people is stronger and warmer than we thought. These days people want to remember the good times of the past, when we were young and beautiful and had flat tummies. There is also an element of accomplishments here. People are curious about who's doing what now and their relationships with other people from the class."
The Internet began as e-mail and was created for this," says Waldman. "This site is everything that the Internet is supposed to represent. It is not just a site that embodies the Internet, but rather the Israeliness of the Internet.
Unger agrees. "The atmosphere at the site is warm, with backslaps and camaraderie," he says. @Cross:Sharing the birthing experience
Hevre.co.il is based on an idea that has foreign counterparts like Classmates.com in the United States and FriendsReunited in Britain. "The atmosphere at the Israeli site is not achievement-oriented or competitive," says Veiner, from far away Scotland. "I don't even know where some of the people with whom I have been corresponding these past few weeks are working. My husband, on the other hand, is looking for his high school buddies via FriendsReunited, and I have noticed that people there focus a lot more on their careers. In our crowd, the one or two guys who were braggarts may have remained so, but the general feeling is warmer and closer, and the priorities are different."
Veiner, who is in her ninth month of pregnancy, says her interactions with her overseas friends from third grade are not limited to reminiscing, but very quickly transferred their focus to the present. The little girls she remembers from elementary school are now sharing their pregnancy and childbirth experiences.
Hevre, which offers its services free of charge, has not yet become profitable and is operated from inside the software house that provides its financial backing. The founders relate that the site began as a social donation to the community, and now they are hoping to give it added business value.
In order to make the site profitable and financially independent, Unger and Waldman are banking on revenue from advertising and auxiliary services for which they charge a fee. One such service, which was due to begin operating recently, is for organizing reunions from start to finish, from the invitations to the fruit punch. Soon surfers will be able to send one another bouquets of flowers via the site.
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