When I embarked on this gap year, the one aspect I was most excited about was celebrating the Jewish high holidays in Israel. I would be able to participate in the holiest days of the year surrounded by fellow Jews. One of the most influential moments of my high holiday experience was Selichot at the Western Wall. Every year, from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, the prayers of Selichot are customarily said. They consist of liturgical poems, called piyyutim, that ask for forgiveness and repentance. Before the service, our Rabbi gave us a sermon about the importance of authenticity and audacity. While we participated in Selichot, he wanted us to question: Are we being our true selves, or are we doing an imitation of ourselves? We must strive to have the audacity to be authentic. We made our way down the steps to the Western Wall, the last remaining part of the temple, the holiest place in Judaism and began the service.
One text is repeated many times throughout Selichot: “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, Almighty, Merciful, Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Keeper of kindness for thousands of generations, Endurer of iniquity, and transgression, and sin; and Acquitter of those who repent.” “And pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your inheritance”. For this paragraph, there is no melody. Instead, it is a guttural cry. Every time this text was repeated, I could feel the raw emotion of 50,000 Jews calling out to God. Throughout the prayers, not only did I attempt to consider and repent for my sins, but also to consider if I am being my true, authentic self.
Another influential experience was celebrating Simchat Torah in Tzfat, an ancient mystical city that has had a Jewish presence for thousands of years. As we sat down to bake challah (a special bread we eat on the Sabbath), one of the women running our program began to talk to us about the process of creation. She explained how God created everything for a reason, and everything we encounter in life happens for a reason. However, we still have the power to choose our actions, so we must strive to be good in the face of whatever happens.
Later that night, we participated in the ritual of Hakafot, a core tradition of Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates the ending and restarting of the Torah (Old Testament) reading and is a holiday meant to be full of joy. With the Torah scrolls, we danced and sang, celebrating the opportunity for another year of learning and life.
The following morning, October 7th, we were woken up early and told to meet downstairs for a security meeting. We learned that the terrorist organization Hamas had attacked Israel that morning. We all initially thought it was just one of those regular rocket barrages that happens once or twice each year, but we eventually learned what happened. Terrorists had broken through the border fence of Gaza, invaded kibbutzim, and murdered and kidnapped countless people. This holiday, supposed to be one of the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar, was interrupted by a horrible tragedy, the most Jewish deaths in one day since the Holocaust. Despite reading articles and hearing about the situation, the reality still did not set in for me. As all this was unfolding, the ultra-orthodox Rabbis running our program were still trying to preserve the spirit of the holiday. They took us on a tour of synagogues around the city with more singing and dancing, but it all felt off. How could we be joyful while a tragedy was unfolding? When we returned from the tour, our staff decided for us to head back to Tel Aviv early out of concern that we would be stranded in Tzfat. As we approached Tel Aviv, Israeli soldiers stopped our bus at a checkpoint and searched it to ensure no terrorists were hiding. When we were about two blocks away from our building, the air raid siren started sounding. The bus pulled to the side of the road, and our counselor told us to put our heads down and cover our heads with our arms. The sirens went off for a few minutes, and then we heard a loud boom, one rocket which hit south Tel Aviv, followed by many smaller booms, the Iron Dome intercepting the remaining rockets.
That night, the sirens went off three more times in our area, and we went to the secure area in our building. As I kept reading articles and seeing videos of the people kidnapped and murdered, I felt so much pain for the families of those victims. I found out that one of my middle school classmates was kidnapped, along with the cousin of my high school friend. My friend’s cousin was stationed at the military base taken over by Hamas, and her family hadn’t heard from her since the start of the attack. I kept thinking back to the lesson we learned while baking challah in Tzfat: Everything we encounter happens for a reason. I couldn’t, and still can’t consider a single reason why this needed to happen. On Monday the 9th, our program moved us down to a kibbutz (socialist community) near the southern tip of Israel to remove us from the danger. We were fortunate enough to have a safe place to go; however, many people living near Gaza had their communities and families destroyed, witnessing unspeakable horrors. Even still, after Israel has regained control over all the towns and evacuated citizens from the towns directly near the border, people in cities across all of Israel hear air raid sirens multiple times a day and are living in constant fear.
This war also highlighted a beautiful aspect of Israeli culture: the community. People around Israel opened their homes to families fleeing the Gaza envelope, restaurants started donating food for soldiers on army bases, and hospitals had to stop taking blood donations because too many people were donating. In the kibbutz, we managed to help by sorting clothes and food at a distribution center for refugees in Eilat and cleaning out old, unused bomb shelters.
Currently, I am in Europe as my parents decided that it was unsafe for me to remain in Israel, but I hope to return as soon as possible to help the country rebuild.