It all started when I was in fourth grade. My best friend’s mom took us to the synagogue to hear a presentation about a sleep-a-way camp located in the mountains of Clayton, Georgia. I watched an outdated video and read an itinerary of what a typical day was like at Camp Ramah Darom. In the car ride home, my friend’s mom told us stories about her summer camp days, basically trying to persuade us to go to camp that summer. When I was dropped off at my house, my parents were not so in love with the idea of sending me to the mountains for a month. Side note: mom and dad were not against camp either as they would never stop me from doing something, but to say the least, my dad told me there would be rats in the bunks.
Most of you know how this story ends. I went to camp that summer, cried everyday for the first two weeks, and then returned for six consecutive summers. I am almost positive that I would not be in Israel today if I did not go to Camp Ramah. Sure there might have been other factors that led me here, but I know for fact that I would not be studying at Indiana University and probably would not have the same interests, career path, or love for Judaism that I do today.
One of the highlights of my semester so far is my Jewish Experiential Education course. A large focus on the class is on camping and youth movements, two separate groups that have impacted my life to the point that I would not be who I am today without them. We just finished a lecture series given by Shalom Orzach who currently serves as the Avi Chai Foundation Project director and Director of Education in the Israel Fellows Unit of the Jewish Agency. His lectures spoke about why camp works and the long- term impact of Jewish overnight camp. Orzach also has a history with both USY and Ramah and held a discussion on Ramah camps. One of the coolest things about this class is that aside from it reaffirming my love for Jewish camps and teaching me that the Jewish camp business really does work in the sense of Jewish continuity and identification to one’s personal Jewishness, it has given me the opportunity to reflect on my upbringing and how my family as well as my experiences as both a camper and staff member has helped sculpt my Jewish identity and journey.
All of my Jewish experiences really hit home when I attended the Women of the Wall Rosh Hodesh (new month on the Hebrew calendar). My friend’s cousin was involved and she asked if I would go with her. We woke up way too early and headed into town with some friends towards the Kotel (don’t worry, everyone, stopped for coffee before we returned to campus). We walked through the Christian quarter and the Jewish quarter and because it was so early it was so quiet and calm- a totally different experience than a regular weekday afternoon. When we arrived at the women’s side of the Kotel, a group of about 30 women were just starting with the morning prayers, we were handed a siddur, and joined in prayer.
I am not here to discuss political issues about the Women of the Wall organization. I am here to share that for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to join in prayer, out loud, with a group of women at one of the holiest places in the world. I have prayed at random gas stations and some of the most beautiful places in America (shout out to Crater Lake) as well as some extraordinary places in Israel; however, I have never been part of communal prayer at the Western Wall. I have witnessed men taking part in spiritual and ruach filled services, but have never myself been able to have the same experience at the Kotel. Without a doubt, my morning with Women of the Wall would not have been the same if there were protestors or if I was not able to follow along with the service, but luckily there were only two protestors (one man and one woman who blew her whistle at us) and I was familiar and comfortable with the service. Overall it was a very moving and meaningful morning.
For the rest of the week, I have been reflecting on the community versus the individual. This was a long week filled with lots of class and some afternoons in town walking around and exploring with some friends. However, on Thursday, my four- hour class was cancelled so I was done with class at 10am. A few of my friends were going to Eilat this weekend, but I decided to stay in Jerusalem to catch up on sleep and get my life together since my best friend and family arrive in Israel this week (SO EXCITED!!!!). So after a two- hour nap, I grabbed a falafel and headed into town. I walked around, went to the Shuk, and just wondered alone. I guess this was the first time since I got here that I had really been alone for a substantial amount of time. However, I realized that I really wasn’t alone. I think Israel is the only place where I feel like I am part of a larger community at all times. I’m not sure if it is because I know I’m surrounded by so many Jews or because I see Hebrew everywhere or even because people really are just so helpful and welcome, but in an almost indescribable way I feel as if my life is more meaningful here than in any city in America. So, after my afternoon alone, my Israeli co staff from the past summer picked me up and took me to a coffee shop (Tachanat Hacafe) and then to a place that was playing live music. It was great to spend some time with an Israeli as well as reminisce on the summer.
Friday morning I woke up early and continued on my solo adventures to get a manicure and pedicure. I then met up with my friend and did some shopping (no worries mom and dad, didn’t really make any purchases…waiting until you arrive for that). This was the first weekend in a long time I was able to explore Jerusalem on a Friday. We had brunch and walked around feeling the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem as everyone was preparing for Shabbat. Later in the afternoon we headed to the Kotel to welcome in Shabbat. On our walk there we heard the Shabbas siren. When we arrived at the Kotel, I did some more of my personal reflection. We first walked around listening to the men pray my favorite service, Kabbalat Shabbat, and saw the women pray silently. We actually did join in with a group of Israeli women soldiers who were briefly singing some songs. Once that ended we just sat down and people watched. We saw tourists (love the American Jewish women who just talk and talk), religious men and women, soldiers, families, and other groups all flock to one area to sing, pray, and observe (some even observed by attempting to take photographs until they were yelled at).
Shabbat at the Kotel was very black and white. Men were dancing, singing and praying together as a community. Women were for the most part individually praying, quietly singing out loud, or chatting about what they saw around them. I was very engaged in my people watching and observing because I realized that I am starting to naturally look at things here from an educational perspective. The other day in Jewish Education class, we broke out into groups and tried to pick 6 places and experiences we would provide for a Birthright bus. I actually had a Birthright guide in my group so it was very interesting to hear what Birthright allows guides to pick as well as what is mandatory for each bus. Almost every group in class wanted to provide the participants with a Shabbat experience and most of them said that the Kotel was the place to do that. I completely agree that Shabbat in Israel is an experience every person needs witness, but I question if the Kotel is really the best site in Jerusalem if only given one Shabbat. Without a doubt there are incredible moments that take place at the Kotel everyday and especially on Shabbat, but I definitely saw it through a different lens this past Shabbat.
It is starting to hit me how quickly time is moving. I am almost half way through this semester and I really don’t know how that has happened. I am finally to the point where I enjoy going on adventures alone as well as exploring new cafes to work on my small amount of homework, so to me that means I am extremely comfortable and settled here. My best friend arrives this week and my family (minus my brother..still bitter) a few days later. I can’t wait to show them around Israel through my eyes. Even though I still have a great deal of time here, I need to start planning my next trip back. There is something addictive about this country. I just can’t get enough of it. Who knows…maybe alyiah is in the future…..so until next time, xoxo
disclaimer: i apologize for any grammatical errors (that’s for you, mother).