*The title of a song by Arik Einstein that has been played on the radio constantly since the news that Gilad Shalit would be returning home, as well as the slogan on the banners welcoming him home (See photo below).
Welcome to a glimpse into my second year of Rabbinical School in Israel! I’ve now been here just over three weeks and am starting to feel like I actually live in Jerusalem.
To kick things off, I thought I’d share some thoughts on this year. Last week, I was privileged to attend a dinner with members of UJA-Federation of New York (at an amazing restaurant called “Agas VeTapuach.”) Federation is generously funding a year’s worth of programming for us JTS students combined with students from the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, and Hebrew Union College. I shared the following words with them (modified here and there):
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz (who runs our experiential program here in Israel) asked me to share my hopes and expectations for my year of study in Israel. Before going into that, here’s some background.
I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. My father is a rabbi, my mother is a Jewish educator, so I’ve been involved with the Conservative Movement for a long time. As such, a lot of people saw me on the path to the rabbinate long before I did myself. The last time I was in Israel for the year was my junior year at Hebrew University, during which I spent the year as a typical student abroad, running all over the country, going wherever I wanted to eat, explore, and pray, and periodically doing my homework. With the primary goal being “fun” I didn’t want to take the time to figure out my place as a Conservative Jew in Israel. The truth is, though, over the course of that year, I really missed my community, my identity, and realized how painful it was to be in my people’s homeland and not feel able to practice my Judaism. It was at that point that I started to think about the rabbinate seriously- I didn’t want people to feel as closed off to their own religious experience as I did that year.
So, a few years later, I weathered the “I told you so’s” and applied to rabbinical school. Now, being back in this same city five years later as a rabbinical student, I cannot step away from navigating this disconnect, nor do I want to.
So what do I expect and hope to experience this year as a JTS rabbinical student in Israel? I was speaking with a classmate recently about how I had no pre-formed expectations for my year in Israel. Between finishing CPE, preparing for the high holidays, and my sister’s wedding, I just didn’t think too much about it. Right before Sukkot I realized, “Hey! I’m going to Israel in less than a week!” and then panicked about packing, but I did not prepare myself mentally for my transition (and let me tell you, I do NOT like transitions). All of a sudden, I woke up on Tuesday morning of Chol Hamoed Sukkot in Jerusalem, totally overwhelmed but ready to tackle the year.
I am now grateful that I didn’t take the time to think out my expectations, because it allows me to use these experiences of my first few weeks here to shape what I want this year to be about. I’d like to share with you some of these earliest formative experiences, and what I hope to gain from them.
1. I mentioned before that I woke up on Tuesday morning of Chol Hamoed Sukkot in Jerusalem, my first day in Israel. That also happens to be the day that kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was returned home. What an incredible day to be in Israel! People were out on the streets celebrating. I walked by the Prime Minister’s home where a vigil tent had been set up for the past 2 years, and instead of sitting somberly, people were watching the news, dancing, hugging, and singing. Many Israelis, much like many North American Jews, were very torn about the deal in which he was released for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but that Tuesday in the middle of the holiday in which we are supposed to be “ach sameah,” completely, utterly, happy, people radiated that joy. On that day, Gilad Shalit was everyone’s child, and it was impossible, even as a visitor to Israel, not to feel a part of that greater family. My first day in Israel I was invited to join a family, and I can only hope to feel the same connectedness with the people around me as the year progresses.
2. For my first Shabbat in Israel, we (the JTS and Ziegler students) went on a tiyul (trip) to Northern Israel. We met with a successful Masorti Rabbi, Elisha Wolfin, at his congregation in Zichron Yaakov, and then spent Shabbat at Kibbutz Hannaton, a kibbutz that is affiliated with the Masorti movement in Israel (and therefore also with the Conservative movement in the States). It was inspiring to see a community that practiced a committed Jewish lifestyle together while still making room for the different backgrounds and opinions of its constituents. What this Shabbaton really did for us, though, was to allow all of us from JTS and Ziegler to connect with each other and get to know each other. This year, we are becoming friends, so that in the future we can be colleagues and allies as rabbis.
Plus, we went on a challenging, stunning hike down through the Golan Heights to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). True, they told us it was going to be a “leisurly walk, mostly downhill,” and I’ve since learned not to trust Israeli assessments of things like that. (Similar to directions giving- “yashar, yashar, yemina ad hasof- go straight, straight, then a right until the end.” Turn right where?? The end of what??) Still, the hike was definitely a bonding experience filled with beautiful views and a very rewarding dip in the Kinneret at the end.
3. A couple of weeks ago, to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, I joined about 40 women and a dozen male allies at the Women of the Wall. WoW (Nashot HaKotel) started as a group of women who wanted to reclaim the Kotel, the Western Wall, as a space where everyone, particularly women, could pray and praise God publicly. Women’s voices are often silenced at the Kotel due to the strong Haredi presence and opposition to women engaging in communal prayer. Members of WoW have been arrested in the past for attempting to read from the Torah at the Kotel. Currently, the group davens the service through Hallel at the Kotel (many women wearing Tallitot and kippot), and then moves to Robinson’s Arch, an area designated for egalitarian prayer, for the Torah reading.
Though I originally felt uncomfortable with the idea of going to a space and provoking people whom I didn’t really believe would ever really change their minds, I realized that that was not the point of WoW. The point is to make a space for US, not to try to change THEM. It was empowering to reclaim a space that hadn’t felt like mine for a long time, and to pray there the way I know how. The best moment for me came during Hallel- we were singing loudly at this point, and a couple of women had tried to shush us, while men on the other side of the mechitza were trying to drown our voices out by singing even more loudly. I looked forward, and saw some Haredi women, probably a grandmother, her daughters, and granddaughters watching us, but not with the curious or disgusted looks that we had seen previously. Then, they started to clap and sing along. By being there, we not only created a space for ourselves to praise God, but for others as well, who might not have had the opportunity.
Check out the WoW website. There is a great video taken during Hallel as well as a link to photos from that morning.
These three experiences are just a few of my notable encounters of the past few weeks. All I can say is, “Keep ’em coming!” By the end of the year, I hope that all of these events, stories, and experiences will combine to make this Israel year as formative as it has the potential to be.
It’s about time to wrap it up now since Shabbat pretty much starts at noon this time of year, but I’ll be back soon with more to report. Preview of posts to come: daily life at Machon Schechter, snapshots from Jerusalem explorations, and some “only in Israel”-isms (think the “Really?!” segment from Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live).
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!