Start of my Gap Year – Holidays, Herzl, and Haverim

From celebrating my release from quarantine on Rosh Hashanah to Tisch-ing on a public street on Yom Kippur, High Holy Day season in the Holy Land was nothing short of inspiring and eventful. And all the in-between moments– getting lost on Israeli public transportation, roaming around Hebrew University, perfecting my Hebrew through awkward interactions with Israelis– kept reminding me this is my reality for the next nine months.
After arriving in Israel 3 weeks ago, all 35 of us Nativ-ers were sent straight to a government-mandated week in quarantine, or “bidud.” Spending every waking moment with the same 5 girls I was randomly assigned helped us bond quickly and fast, and before I knew it I had made some of my new best “haverim” (friends).
My bidud-mates and I in Zoom class

How do you manage being holed up with the same people for a week? We Zoomed classes together, exchanged book recommendations, sang loudly from our tiny balcony, indulging in a “porch war” with the capsule next to us, did 50-minute YouTube workouts in a 2×10 hallway, played backgammon, and put together 1,000 piece puzzles. Before a week had passed, the madrichim were knocking on our doors to break the news that our COVID tests were clean and we were free from our lockdown. I now know how the Israelites felt when hearing that they were finally allowed to leave their houses and walk out of Egypt – relieved and ecstatic. (They had also been in bidud – “None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning” – Exodus 12:22.) I ran downstairs and breathed fresh air for what felt like the first time in years, and hugged all the Nativ-ers whom I had only met at the airport very briefly a week earlier.

Erev Rosh Hashana on the Nativ amphitheater

Perhaps ending quarantine just in time for Rosh Hashanah was symbolic – a transition from a year characterized by isolation to one of unity and building interpersonal connection. On the first night of Rosh Hashana, we had services and dinner as one big group, reinforcing the motto for the year “Nativ Echad, Lev Echad” which translates to “One Nativ, One Heart.”

Before leaving the US I chanted the Haftorah for my HTAA congregation, so no better way to feel at home in my new congregation than challenging myself to chant again. I and another girl, Nava, agreed to split in half the long Haftorah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. With a week of quarantine and ample time to practice and perfect, we chanted with confidence the story of Hannah who prayed for a son who turned out to be no other than the prophet Samuel. Following morning services, we “casted our sins away” – doing the tashlich ceremony in the ruins of a dried up river. Welcoming in the new year by chanting the Haftorah for 40 strangers, I got a head start on my goals of growing in my knowledge of Yiddishkeit and getting used to being comfortable while uncomfortable.
Living in Jerusalem, I am relying on walking as my main form of transport. And I now appreciate the realtors’ mantra about “the three L’s” – location, location, location! Beit Nativ, our apartment complex, is located in the center of Jerusalem in an area that can be described as “perfect distance from everything worthwhile.” We are walking distance from Ben Yehuda street (a street filled with restaurants and shops, one of the most common hang out spots for Israel gap year students), from the Old City, from the beautiful Yemin Moshe neighborhood, from Shuk Machane Yehuda, from the central bus station, and from the luxury Mamilla mall.
So on Rosh Hashanah night, we walked to the Kotel, sat in a circle, and sang zemirot – slow-tempo songs which soothe your soul. Sitting with girls I had never met and singing moving songs in unison filled my heart with inspiration. Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalaim shel zahav” coursed through my veins as I sat in the very spot the song talked about. I realized that what makes Israel and Jerusalem special isn’t the specific land itself, but the people and the connections it fosters among the Jewish community.
However, the singing at the Kotel also revealed the deep divide in the Jewish community, as not long after starting, the girls among us were told to leave the women’s section because of “kol isha” [=the male-formulated Talmudic concept that a woman’s voice is so tempting that men are not allowed to hear a woman sing…Isn’t it time for Israel’s rabbinate to revisit that rule?!]. However, in the egalitarian section of the Kotel, girls and boys sang together, linked arm in arm.
Touring Hebrew University’s Campus

I spent the week after Rosh Hashanah meeting my Hebrew University professors and students from the International School, assisting Arab students in basic Hebrew in the library’s student lounge, and getting accustomed to Israeli public transportation.

In Professor David Mendelson’s class, we compared the Zionism of Theodor Herzl to that of Ahad Ha’am. Herzl emphasized the need for a sovereign political state, with diplomacy as the key tool to achieve this, whereas Ahad Ha’am focused on creating a widespread Jewish culture in Palestine free of the political burdens a sovereign state would entail.
Experiencing Yom Kippur in Israel, I couldn’t help but feel exactly what Ahad Ha’am strived for in his Zionist vision. I attended services at three different types of synagogues- for Kol Nidre I went with a group to a Reform style congregation, for morning prayers the next day I went to a modern orthodox “partnership” congregation, and for neila and break-fast we went to a Sephardi orthodox congregation in a stunning turquoise building in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood. Unlike in the US where the different strains of Judaism feel very separate and disconnected, each of the services I went to followed (almost) the same prayers and displayed a similarly-strong spiritual commitment. It felt like a perfectly harmonized and integrated song.
Yom Kippur in Israel is unique in another sense. Throughout the country, virtually no cars are on the roads. It is a 25-hour car-less experience. Accordingly, all of the Nativ-ers gathered in the middle of what is normally one of the busiest intersections in the city and had a heartfelt tisch (a Hasidic-style gathering which usually consists of singing melodies, divrei Torah and refreshments–that part was obviously omitted). Passersby on the street joined in, and as the night progressed the circle became larger and larger.
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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