Today's blog post is written by Rose, a member of the 2019-2020 Yahel Social Change Fellowship. Rose is living and volunteering for 9 months in Rishon LeZion.
“There’s just something in the air during the chaggim (holidays). You have to be there to understand,” my Israeli friends told me before I left for Israel. My goals for these nine months in Israel are simple: celebrate the chaggim, absorb Israeli culture, improve my Hebrew, and contribute to the community of Ramat Eliyahu. This past month of Tishre (October this year), I achieved my first goal.
Growing up, I went to shul with my Zaide for the High Holy Days. As his only grandchild, he financed my way through Jewish Day School from Kindergarten to 8th grade. As we sat in shul I could see him beaming as I chanted the prayers he ensured I learned, all the while braiding his tallit and eating candies congregants would pass to me.
Fast forward 20 years later and I find myself here, in Israel. It has been exactly ten years since my Zaide passed away, and instead of sitting next to him on Rosh Hashanah, I climbed the stairs to the women’s section of a Moroccan synagogue in Be’er Sheva. I opened a siddur full of Hebrew and did my best to follow along as I listened to foreign melodies accompanied by familiar prayers. Peering down over the balcony, I listened to the sounds of the shofar as it blasted. Women covered their faces as they whispered their deepest prayers. My Rosh HaShanah feast was also a new experience. This year, I joined a friend’s family for my first Moroccan feast. The words “Shana tova” were embroidered onto the white table cloth protected by a plastic covering. There was a seder plate, something I thought only existed on Passover. We ate Moroccan fish, meat, and chicken. It was a feast, to say the least.
With the new year, so too, I began a new adventure. Just one day after Rosh HaShanah, I moved to Ramat Eliyahu, a small community in Rishon LeTzion where I will be spending the next 9 months living and volunteering. I met seven wonderful people from the United States, Canada, Argentina, and the Czech Republic who I will share this journey with. While many consider Ramat Eliyahu to be a poor community, I see it as the opposite. Our neighborhood is small and tight knit, rich with culture, affection, and family. Ethiopian Jewish Israelis make up 52% of the neighborhood and bring unique tradition that I spent much of the chaggim sharing in.
I have seen pictures, heard stories, and read about Yom Kippur in Israel. It seemed like a scene from a movie. Not a single car on the street? Bike riding on the freeway? How could that be possible? These were my thoughts prior to experiencing this holy day here. The holiday began when my new colleagues and I decided to have a pre-fast meal together. We each contributed home-cooked food and called family and friends to wish them a gmar chatima tova. Those of us who fasted for the holiday scarfed down our meals in order to light the holiday candles on time. Because we all have varying levels of observance, we agreed to walk 30 minutes to the nearest reform synagogue, hoping for an inclusive and melodic Kol Nidre service we would all feel comfortable in.
The minute we stepped outside our apartment, the holy air hit us. The neighborhood was covered in an elegant white. Ethiopian women typically wear white on Shabbat, but that day, everyone wore white. Thin white shawls covered the heads of older women, while young girls wore white dresses. The streets were full, but not of cars. Rather, of people; Jews, young, old, religious and non religious, of all descents, speaking Amharic, Hebrew, Russian, and English. Some were walking to temple, others were watching their kids as they enjoyed the freedom of the empty roads. Soon, we arrived at the synagogue and I heard the melody I have heard every year for the past 29 years. My body immediately relaxed, I wiped the sweat off my nose, and the holiest day of the year commenced.
On our way home from temple we walked through multiple neighborhoods (it was a long 30 minutes). We crossed over a major freeway, walked on main roads, side roads, and alleys. But no matter where we were, the scene was the same: Children on bikes and parents sitting on the roadside curbs or on dining room chairs set up in circles outside. Older Ethiopian men played cards in the park with talits covering their shoulders while young adults played board games in the park.
On the morning of Yom Kippur I woke up to the sound of prayers. I rolled out of bed, put my white clothes back on, and began asking for help to find the Ethiopian synagogue. When I arrived, the women were overflowing out the back door. A kind woman brought me a chair and I sat and observed the scene. This service was unique in that it was conducted in Gez, an ancient Ethiopian language used only for prayer. I didn’t understand a word, and the congregation was comprised of many older Ethiopian community members who only spoke Amharic. As such, my communication with them was limited. But, I sat and listened, I stood when the same holy Torah was removed from the ark, and prayed to the same G-d. While the words were different and their bows deeper, I was there with my people. I walked back to the apartment, this time passing quieter streets as the heat beamed down. The Moroccan synagogue across from our apartment was still finishing their services, so I went in for a bit. As the day turned to evening, I made my way to the fourth and final synagogue. This time, I chose to go to another Ethiopian shul, but with a younger population and a service conducted in Hebrew. Again, the doors were open as chairs poured out into the courtyard. Women held their babies in one arm and their siddurim in the other. Children continued riding bikes as the sun set. Men stood in their rubber flip flops praying. I was the only white person there. I questioned if I should have been there, or if I was invading a space I did not belong in. I received many stares, but also friendly smiles. After the shofar sounded I followed the trickling flow out. By the end of Yom Kippur I had been to a total of four synagogues between Kol Nidre and Ne’ilah, all in this new place I call home.
On my walk home from Ne’ilah I began hearing the sound of hammers banging. As I neared closer, I saw three families building three different sukkahs, one next to the other, directly under our apartment window! I ran upstairs to get my camera and joined my new neighbors. I introduced myself and explained my excitement as it was my first sukkot in Israel. One family had almost completed their sukkah, just one hour after Yom Kippur finished. They then began to help the family next to them. The son lifted up the schach as another man rolled it across the top of the sukkah. The women stood to the side directing the men. One woman explained to me that the sukkah needed to be built as soon as Yom Kippur ended in order to not postpone a mitzvah that could be done (building the sukkah). I watched for a bit longer and then went up to sleep. The following day, I woke up to Ramat Eliyahu covered in sukkahs. Families were busy putting up walls and decorating the inside of their temporary structures. As I walked down the street wishing people a happy new year, I got numerous offers to join in festive meals and fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah.
With one holiday after another, our first few weeks in Ramat Eliyahu passed quickly. From walking on freeways to dancing with the Torah, from Ethiopian to to Ashkenazi synagogues, to going from home to home breaking bread with Jews from all over the world. We have learned so much, but are just getting started. Although it has been just one month, I feel like the chaggim brought our cohort and community together. After spending this holiday season here, I can confirm that there is indeed something special in this holy air, and I am eager to continue to breath in each new experience that comes my way in the fellowship, as a member of this community, and in Israel. Shana tova.