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Exploring Israeli Society with Services and Seudot

Shabbat in Israel lends the perfect opportunity to explore the country, and I am extremely lucky to have ample family members spread out across various communities and regions of Israel, allowing me to embrace my inner anthropologist.

On October 9, Parashat Noach, six friends and I experienced what was furthest from any Shabbat experience any of us had ever had – a 25-hour immersion in a Hasidic enclave called Kiryat Sanz, Netanya. Graciously hosted by my grandma Savta Shira and Step- Saba Baruch, we were privileged to get an in-depth tour of Kiryat Sanz. We welcomed Shabbat by watching the stunning sunset over the Mediterranean Sea from Savta’s apartment, and we then attended Kabbalat Shabbat at a nearby shul. During our delicious dinner (compliments to the chef, Savta!) we talked to Ruchama, my step-cousin, about growing up as a girl in the Hasidic Kiryat Sanz.
We then walked over and attended the Rebbe’s tisch. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered. On the one hand, it was quite awe-inspiring to see the crowds of Haredi men gather in the Hasidic sanctuary and follow a ritual unique to this community, with a specific order of events, a distinct seating pattern, and Sanz-specific songs. Clearly, each detail was ingrained in them from repeating the ritual every week. On the other hand, it was disheartening to see the deep-seated divide (pun intended) between men and women, as during the tisch all the women were confined to the walled-off women’s section above the main sanctuary, with only tiny peepholes in the thick wall. One had to strain the eyes and squint through those peepholes in order to see a glimpse of everything taking place in the world underneath. Speaking to Savta, we heard that many of the Sanz women appreciate the separateness and wholly embrace the distinct gender roles in the community, but I couldn’t help imposing my American progresssive mindset and feel for their ostracism.
Waking up bright and early on Shabbat day, we began by going to a nearby Yemenite synagogue, my first ever Yemenite service. The Yemenite custom is to repeat each line of the Torah reading in Hebrew and Aramaic to preserve the lingua franca at the time of Ezra the Scribe, an impressive dedication to preservation of culture. One Yemenite service wasn’t enough, however, as there are two Yemenite subgroups- the Shami and Baladi- and after seeing the Shami, we had to also see the Baladi. Only a few blocks down we stumbled on a Baladi shul, and in joining the service we ended up crashing a Shabbat Chatan. The term Shabbat Chatan, in the Ashkenazi world, is reserved for the Shabbat service of a bride and groom, right before their wedding. In Yemenite tradition, however, the custom is to have Shabbat Chatan right after the wedding. We spoke to the newlyweds, the bride’s mother, and some of the other service-goers, wishing everyone a Mazal Tov. We didn’t stop at two services of course, and as they say, the third time’s the charm, so we briefly attended the Hasidic shul (the one which hosted the tisch) for a glimpse of Musaf.
Friends and I With “Nativ” Cookie Savta Baked
Following our three shul services, Savta Shira took us to the Rudolph and Edith Academic Tessler School of Nursing. An affiliate of the Laniado hospital, this is the only nursing school of its kind worldwide. The complete curriculum, which includes courses in biology, physiology, pathology and social sciences, also includes courses on halachot pertaining to medical issues. It is a unique haredi learning framework based on the Jewish worldview, with an emphasis on nursing as a tool for worshipping the Creator. Religious girls from around the country dream of getting into the school.
Both the Laniado hospital and nursing school were the brainchild of the late Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam. After losing his wife and 11 kids in the Holocaust he pledged to build a Hospital in Israel were he to survive. The hospital and nursing school were funded by Mr. Rudolph (Naftali) Tessler, a fellow survivor who met the Rebbe in a Displaced Persons Camp, and who built a small fortune in the US after the Holocaust. After walking us through the hallways of the Nursing School, explaining the background behind each picture on the wall, my Savta took us to the maternity ward of the Laniado hospital. Overcome by emotion when seeing the newborn babies, my friend Ariel started crying, explaining that she had never seen a brand new human life before. At the hospital, we talked to a Haredi mother who had just given birth that Friday and was walking around practically ready to run a marathon. The mother told us she married at 18 and had her first kid at 19 – what a drastically different lifestyle than ours!
At noon, we came back to my Savta’s apartment, enjoyed a lunch in which we discussed our studies at Hebrew University and learned about my Savta’s transition from growing up in an American Reform community to living in an Israeli Haredi community, and took a much needed lengthy three hour nap. Following a delicious Seudah Shlishit, the traditional third meal of Shabbat, our jam-packed Shabbat came to a close with the havdalah ceremony – though we didn’t notice any major Hasidic changes to that ritual. It seems that after all, what unites us is greater than what divides us!
On October 16, Parashat Lech Lecha, Niv and I spent Shabbat at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, near Beit She’an, with my aunt Efrat, her husband Daniel, and their three little girls Achinoam (7), Atar (4) and Tamara (4 months). Over the course of the Shabbat, we learned all about the kibbutz, the history of schools and dining halls, and some of the privatization it’s undergoing now. Daniel, who grew up on the Kibbutz, showed us around and explained the contrast between the Kibbutz he grew up in, reminiscent of the idealistic image many hold of Kibbutzim as a collective community, versus the more current privatized way of life. Daniel admitted to the “modernized” Kibbutz being much more practical and constructive, despite the romanticism of the old Kibbutz.
While the Kibbutz is much more privatized, there remains a deeply communal aspect of living unlike in any other community: families don’t need to lock their doors, can let little kids roam around freely, and members of the community take care of each other. This sense of communal responsibility for all members was felt at lunch on Shabbat, when Efrat and Daniel hosted two incredibly friendly men with developmental disabilities and who work for the kibbutz on the dairy farm as fully contributing members and live in the communal building for those with different abilities.
Achinoam, Atar, and I After Shabbat
This communal lifestyle became even clearer on Saturday afternoon, during a walk around the kibbutz, when I witnessed a seudat brachot [a festive meal with blessings] for my first time. The goal of this custom, I learned, is to say as many brachot [blessings] as possible after overcoming a tumultuous situation. The kibbutz “rebbetzin” had just recovered from COVID-19, and gotten out of quarantine, so she and her friends held a seudat brachot with chocolate, mezonot, different shivat haminim, and a food sample from each blessing group to celebrate. Seeing us on our walk, they graciously invited us to join, as the more brachot said, the better! Getting to spend time with my little cousins, who were ever so enthusiastic to talk to me, hear about my life, and appreciate a new teenage family member to marvel at, was the highlight of my Shabbat.
On October 30, Parashat Chayei Sarah, Niv, 3 friends and I spent Shabbat in Moshav Eshel Hanasi, near Be’er Sheva, with my mom’s cousin Effi, his wife Ronit, three of his children, and seven of his grandchildren. Concerned with how we would find their house as the moshav is devoid of street names and numbers, we successfully made it thanks to over-the-phone guidance from Effi. Keen on practicing the Arabic I am learning in my Colloquial Arabic class at Hebrew U, I read every highway street sign in Arabic on the way there. It didn’t help to guide us to the right house, but nonetheless it was a central part of the journey.
Effi, Niv, Me, My Friends, and Ronit After Shabbat
After attending Friday night services in a submarine-like shul, we had a lovely dinner with vibrant singing and dancing with Effi and Ronit’s 7 grandkids, all under the age of 10. Because of the family’s limited English, the Shabbat was a true assessment of my friends’ Hebrew skills. My friends did not grow up with 2 Hebrew-speaking parents, so when we played a Settlers of Catan game in Hebrew after lunch, in which Benaya (the 6 year old grandchild) explained the game entirely in his native tongue, I served as a translator between all the players. After jumping on the trampoline with the kids, Ronit took my friends, Niv, and me on a walk around the moshav to see the school, cows, chickens, etc. We received background from Ronit about what brought her to the moshav– she teaches at the school which is the central institution of the moshav– National Service, and Bnei Akiva, and the precautions the moshav takes to safeguard the sheep from thieves (apparently some of them Bedouins) who in the past stole sheep while leaving houses and material items completely untouched. During the walk, the grandkids who were with us left to study Torah with their dad, and during seudah shlishit Benaya gave a mini Dvar Torah. The emphasis on education from such a young age in the religious community is truly impressive, as I cannot picture a secular 6-year-old in the US sitting down out of their own will to learn with their parents with no extrinsic motivation or incentive. Despite the language barrier, we learned about and experienced life in a religious moshav– a simple way of living with fulfillment through Jewish learning and spirituality.
These opportunities to immerse and explore Israeli societies in the most authentic Jewish way continues to be a focal point of my journey that I am deeply relishing.
About the Author
Abby is a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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