Seminary started 100 days ago yet it feels like years have passed since I boarded my FIRST flight to Israel. I clearly remember the butterflies and anxiety that boarded the 11 hour plane ride with me, as I am sure many other gap year students (and anyone else who has traveled to Israel) can relate to. When I finally left the airport and walked through the streets of Israel for the first time, I had a giant smile plastered on my face and I really felt at home, BUT at the same time I also had a strong feeling of fear. Most of the news I had ever heard about Israel, while sitting comfortably in my home in New York, was regarding terror attacks. When talking to my friends about my concerns, they told me not to worry about terrorism in Israel, but I was unable to be comforted. I would walk around with my eyes wide open and would constantly look in all directions for anything suspicious. However, just as my friends suspected, I never found anything out of the ordinary and I quickly grew comfortable with my surroundings and my new home for the year.
The school year started and it felt just like another year in Israel, as so many of my Jewish brothers and sisters have experienced before me. However, being a “regular” yeshiva student has become quite difficult recently. The constant terrorism and lockdowns, or “tailored security” as my school prefers to call it, made it very hard to feel at home in this place that is our home more than any other place in the world. The fear I had when I first arrived in Israel, turned into a fear for the entire country. Car rammings, stabbings and shootings were words that constantly came up on various news outlets on Facebook which I checked religiously (and I am sure many others can relate). When most schools were still on lockdown, I took a quick trip to Ben Yehuda. The street that is usually full of excitement and energy was completely empty.
Although scared, and more cautious, most gap year students still felt like they lived in a safe bubble (of course with pepper spray securely in hand)… until November 19th. The day that Ezra Schwartz HY”D was murdered brought a sense of reality to all of us. We are not safe from terrorism just because we are American students. Terrorists are filled with immense hatred and will attack anyone they can get. Every attack is awful and deserves acknowledgment, however it is much harder to digest such horrific news when you can relate on a more personal level. Ezra was so similar to me, and it could have easily been me, or someone I know, in his place.
The Saturday night after Ezra was murdered I, along with many other yeshiva and seminary students, gathered outside the menorah by the Kotel to sing and share our thoughts on the situation. The singing was absolutely beautiful. We discussed the importance of bringing light into the world, and how essential it is to continue doing chessed and learning in honor of Ezra and everyone else who was murdered. It is in these troubling times that we need to take our strong feelings of anger that are burning within us and use it to ignite good and spread light to others. But why is it only when tragedy strikes that Am Yisroel unifies?
On Thursday November 26, an azkara was held by Yeshivat Ashreinu in memory of Ezra. Many Rabbis and friends of Ezra spoke and then there was a kumzits with singing and dancing. After, my friend and I were discussing how special the event was and we were specifically focusing on the words Lama and Lima. Often we find ourselves asking Lama, ‘why.’ We, the Jewish people, are constantly facing anti-semitism. Why? But instead we should ask ourselves Lima, ‘for what.’ For what would I give up my religion? Nothing. Judaism is my life and as difficult as it may be at times, it is moments like these when I realize that I would not trade my religion for anything else. My friend then mentioned the idea of “brothers and sisters coming from everywhere to listen to the life of a person they never knew existed. Singing arm in arm. Dancing. Shouting a living loving challenge to our enemies.” We must stand up to our enemies. As the saying goes, “Am Yisroel Chai”, the Jewish people will always live on. This extreme amount of Jewish unity was also evident at the wedding of Sarah Litman and Ariel Beigel, where thousands of people showed up to share in the simcha just a few days after Sarah’s brother and father were killed in a different terrorist attack. There was so much happiness and positive energy at the wedding. But, how can we keep this passion and extreme love for Judaism alive and burning strongly?
We need to incorporate simcha, love and chessed into our everyday lives. We need to spread light to others.
Perhaps I feel like this year started ages ago because of the immense amount of growth (no, I am not talking about Sem70) that occurred within me, and that I have witnessed in my friends, in the past few months. In just 100 days, the gap year students grew as a grade. The amount of unity that I experienced at the kumzits at the menorah, the azkara and the wedding is immeasurable. We can NOT let the fire within us die down. Terrorism will not stop us. Let us remember the packed wedding of Sarah and Ariel instead of the desolate streets of Ben Yehuda. If we each work on ourselves, we can unify all of Am Yisroel. In just a few short days we will celebrate Chanukah. Let us use these 8 days of Chanukah to improve ourselves. As we light the first candle, think of the power that one candle has and about how much light it can spread. While watching the flames dance, think about the achdut we have when we too dance together and the power that is within us. The menorah acts as a remembrance for the fire and strength amongst the Jewish people.
So much has happened within 100 days to Am Yisroel. Am Yisroel has the power to continue making a difference, starting with the 8 days of Chanukah and then continuing to spread the light throughout the rest of our lives.
“Layehudim hayeta orah vesimcha vesason vikar. Ken tihyeh lanu.”