I arrived here in Israel as a new olah (immigrant) a little more than a month ago, about a week before the High Holidays (referred to in Israel as simply the chagim, or holidays) started. In a lot of ways, Rosh Hashanah feels a fitting time to move to Israel as part of a Labor Zionist youth movement. As the Jewish lunar calendar cycles to a close, so has my time in America for the time being. This year marks a very significant, possibly one of the most significant turning points in my life. In the past five years, I’ve attended and graduated from university, I’ve lived independently and worked full time at a Jewish social-justice nonprofit, I’ve searched for and created Jewish communities that challenge and fulfill me, and I’ve taken serious responsibility in Habonim Dror North America (see the Movement 101 section for any unfamiliar terms!). This last has been one of the only constants in my life – even though my feelings about the movement have changed many times since I’ve been involved in it – and it has consistently provided me with a community of partners and an idea of the kind of work I want to do with my life – work toward Jewish peoplehood and liberation.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are serious holidays of self-reckoning, or cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul). In the past few weeks, I’ve had to do a serious amount of reckoning: over my life in the past year, over my decision to come here and join the graduate movement (Tnuat HaBogrim), and over what my future holds. Things are by no means clear and by no means easy. The simple fact of picking my life up from the East Coast of the U.S, where the vast majority of my friends and family live, and moving to a foreign country has been extremely daunting. I don’t understand much of what’s going on around me yet, both in Israeli society and in the new movement I’m part of. This is mainly because I’ll be in ulpan (Hebrew classes) for the next couple months instead of diving straight into messimah (a “mission,” or movement job). Ulpan hasn’t started yet, so I don’t have much to do right now, which I know is something many people long for and that I’m sure I’ll miss once I’m a lot busier. Also, I think that once I can communicate better in Hebrew, I’ll feel much more connected to everything going on around me.
The fact that it’s also an ideological decision to make aliyah has made it even more difficult, mainly because of the sheer amount of build-up in the past six months since making the initial decision. It’s been a crazy amount of time to both feel anxious and feel excited, and I think the result is that I’ve been thinking endlessly about this decision conceptually, with no way to envision it or interact with it concretely. I don’t even know if it’s at all possible to prepare for something like this. All I know is that the first few weeks have felt like the rug being pulled out from me – like everything I know and am comfortable with is gone. Which isn’t entirely true – I’m here with four friends and partners from my kvutzah (age cohort) in HDNA, who I can and do share these struggles with. Much of the transition so far has been trying to build a new life together with my friends, who I’ve known in different capacities but never lived with. The five of us are living communally – we are sharing a bank account and all our food and housework. Switching from financial independence to a fully shared economy and household has definitely been a big transition for me and for all of us. Although it’s already been challenging, I’m excited to be exploring what it means to live in a shared space and center ourselves on shared work, in a way that never quite felt possible with my roommates in college.
In the past couple weeks, I’ve mainly been setting up our house and taking care of important errands, like getting my health insurance and my sal klita (the money the Israeli government gives to new olim) account set up. These small tasks – like shopping at the shuk (the outdoor market) and navigating bureaucracy – are much more intimidating than they would be in the U.S., mainly because of my own shyness plus a language barrier. I have been using bits of Hebrew to talk to bus drivers and storekeepers, but having a full and real conversation is still a challenge I haven’t overcome yet. It’s really easy to feel discouraged about Hebrew, or to think that my own anxiety about making mistakes is holding me back from speaking or learning, but then I remind myself that I have been here for about a month, and that I will learn more and more the longer I live here and immerse myself in society.
I have been starting to get involved in some things, which has made a huge difference in helping me feel some purpose. I was on a tzevet (planning staff) for a seminar marking the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. This seminar is called Chesbon v’Zikaron (Accounting and Remembering) and is run for the entire Tnuat HaBogrim every year since the assassination – this year, the olim had our own English seminar track. Planning and running that seminar was a really cool experience, since it challenged me to deal directly with the forces in Israel that allowed such an awful thing to happen in the first place, and the ongoing consequences it’s had pushing Israeli society to the right and away from peace. I also spent a couple days at a messimah, helping out at a ken (“nest,” or movement center of HaNoar HaOved) in Kiryat Yam, a suburb of Haifa. I was anxious and excited to go – I had never seen a ken in action because I didn’t go on Workshop (the HDNA gap year program before college. The second half of the year involves working in kenim). But once I got there, it instantly felt familiar and approachable – because it was full of kids! And kids are people I know how to interact with fundamentally, even in a different language. I spoke more Hebrew on my first day of messimah to kids than I had in the few weeks before that! Since then, I’ve been back to Kiryat Yam a couple times to help run activities in school – we go to the schools and run activities for kids during their morning break. It really feels like I’m just starting to understand how the ken works in Israel as opposed to America – I can already tell how broad of a reach the movement has throughout the country.
We’ve been spending time with Techina, a garin of Americans and Australians from Habonim Dror Australia who’ve made aliyah within the past year, which has been amazing and a huge help. We’ve also begun the process of meeting Lapid, a garin (seed, or small group)of our Israeli age shichvah (age group) who live in Haifa. The long term goals is that we all – our garin, the Israelis and the Australians – will all be part of one shichvah (age group) in Dror Israel. This is an amazing concept – that we, olim and sabarim (natural born Israelis) alike, will live and work together in partnership toward our shared vision of society. Right now, it still feels a long way off – I feel like I still have a lot of work to do to feel like part of Israel itself, let alone my movement shichvah. However, the fact that we’ve already met our Israeli age group within the first few months of our aliyah is still a pretty big deal, considering that this is a fairly recent shift away from English-speaking bubbles of olim, and toward real integration into Israeli society. Gabe and I joined a tzevet to help plan for a huge seminar this winter called “El HaMerchav” where our age group and the two groups below us will meet. We had to go to a seminar all in Hebrew, which was insanely difficult and frustrating, but also another cool new starting point toward understanding the movement here.
I want to sum up with a few thoughts on the chagim themselves. I think that these past few weeks during the High Holidays, I’ve been sharply aware of myself as feeling much closer to my diaspora Jewish upbringing than to Israeli-style Judaism. There’s a lot about Israel that’s deeply familiar during the chagim – one thing is the way everyone goes home to cook and clean and be with their families, similar to the way Shabbat was celebrated in my house in Bethesda, Maryland. In the States, that feeling was confined mainly to my household, whereas here, the entire city and state shut down on chag. The day before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, everything closed at noon, if not earlier. On the actual day of, nothing is open at all – not any single kind of public transportation – and the streets are deserted, as everyone is either at home or at synagogue. That was definitely a bit of a shock to my system. During Sukkot, which is one of my favorite holidays because of its emphasis on joy and community, it was incredible to see sukkahs all over the city, in driveways and patios and rooftops. It definitely made me miss the amazing sukkah that my parents put up every year in our backyard.
It’s also interesting how in the diaspora, at least in Boston where I went to college, there were lots of different options for practicing egalitarian, non-traditional and communal Judaism. Here, either you’re totally secular or quite religious – there’s no middle ground, and it seems difficult to join any kind of organized Jewish community that you’re not part of already. Olim tend to create their own traditions – for example, Techina has put together a beautiful Shabbat service full of singing, and we wrote and ran our own Yom Kippur service (see here for the full text). I can already tell that this transition from diaspora Jew to Israeli Jew is something I’m going to be struggling with – right now, I miss my communities back home and am struggling to feel Jewish on a day-to-day basis.
Thanks for reading and happy Halloween to everyone reading from the U.S. – next chag up is Thanksgiving and my birthday! Hope everyone is enjoying a beautiful fall. I’ve got to admit that the fall – the changing weather and beautiful leaves – is probably the thing I’m missing most about home. Stay posted for more posts, photos, videos and podcasts coming your way soon!