It's a Jew Thing

What's it like growing up an observant Jew in a modern non-Jewish world? Read on...

Monday, October 31, 2005

A little more about Israel.

This post comes partly as a response to Carah's post and partly in response to Kristen's questions.

First off in response to Kristen's question about safety in Israel.... Israel isn't safe at times but you just have to be smart about the places you go and the way you travel. For example, we weren't allowed to travel in Arab owed taxi's or on public buses (we only used charter buses), and we weren't allowed in most open malls. Also, we traveled with an army guard when on fieldtrips and there was a guarded gate at the school. I mean, in Israel they have to worry a lot about terrorist attacks, but they also worry a lot less about the kind of murders and gang violence, things like that we worry about in the US. There was one time that really shook me up, when there was a terrorist attack near a mall where our bus had loaded the week before, but we were happy we weren't there and we were safe. In the last 5 years since being in Israel, there have actually been a few terrorist attacks at places I have been in the past, like a club a lot of kids from the trip went to and in a pizza place we had eaten. That really shook me. But you also have to think that there are times when there have been car accidents in a place you have driven or something. It’s all relative to the place you’re from, I guess.

Carah - I agree that the Kotel was one of the most moving places that we visited. I didn't expect to feel so emotionally effected when we visited but I actually cried the first time that we went there because I immediately realized that millions of people had prayed there before me and that it is such a central part of our religion and a place that so many people talk about going to when they get to Israel. I also thought about how when I was younger and went to summer camp the Israeli counselors used to collect our "wishes" and tell us they'd bring them to the wall as it's traditional to do when you are there. When I got there I was moved to see the thousands and thousands of tiny folded pieces of paper and to know that my wishes were somewhere among the hopes and dreams of so many people. Below is a picture from above the Kotel (which of those of you who may not know is the Western Wall and is the only remaining section of the ancient temple, and is such the holiest place for the Jewish religion.

We also had the opportunity to visit the tunnels below the Western Wall which had just opened and were beginning to be excavated which was amazing to see because it's a section even closer to where the Temple Mount was and people had begun leaving letters to G-d there also.

I think it's hard to tell educationally where I enjoyed visiting the most, but I think that climbing Masada is one of my most amazing memories I have. We climbed up “the hard path” before sunrise and it started drizzling as we neared the top. It was seriously one of the hardest hikes I have ever done and I came close to not being able to make it – but we completed it as a group and when we reached the top we davened (prayed) the morning service in the oldest known Beit Knesset (place of worship) in the world. Below is a picture of us getting ready for services that morning:

We then climbed to the top of the viewing tower to see the beautiful land around us. To one side we saw the hike we had just conquered; to another side we could see land for miles and miles and then see it disappear into the Dead Sea. And as we looked into the sky we saw a full rainbow taking over the sky, from one side of the horizon all the way to the other. It was breathtaking. After that morning we traveled around the mountain top and looked at the remnants and an ancient people that were so close to each of our hearts at that moment. So close in fact that we put ourselves in their place and imagines that we were the ancient Jewish people who had been held up as the last people to evade capture and destruction of the Jewish community in Israel. We discussed, for four hours, their decision to commit suicide as an entire community rather than be taken capture and tortured then murdered. We took sides and debated. On that day, one of my favorite days in Israel we sat on the same ground as thousands of visitors had done before and contemplated history while viewing a beautiful landscape.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


How many times have you heard a Jewish person say how important it is to go to Israel, and how it is our homeland and everyone must visit. I mean, wasn’t Birthright, this amazing free trip for Jewish college students, created for that reason? It is all true. But reading it, hearing about it, or thinking it is literally nothing compared to experiencing it. And I didn’t want to experience it as most Americans do, as a tourist. I wanted to experience it as part of it. That’s why for one quarter of my junior in high school I enrolled in the USY High (a program run nationally by my youth group) which meets at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, an American run school in Israel. In the small town of Hod Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv, I was able to feel part of Israel while learning everything about it.

Basically, you take classes Sunday-Friday mornings and learn in a classroom everything that there is to know about Israeli and Jewish history, studying from Biblical times to the present day struggles of the modern state of Israel. Included in this would be 1 or 2 days a week having a tiyul (fieldtrip) where we’d visit sights of importance to what we were learning. So we visited all the sites that “tourists” visit but also so many more places that were so important to us because we visited them knowing all of the history behind them. There was even a guy on our trip who had previously gone on a tourist visit to Israel and told us at one point that sites we visited at more significance to him now because on his first trip they’d just get off the bus visiting places as they fell in geographic convenience and didn’t really know what the place meant. I remember on that day feeling really happy that I’d made the decision to visit Israel in this way.

Below is a picture from one of our fieldtrips, when we learning about Jews moving to Palestine around the time of World War 2. Basically the English were still in command of the land and didn't open it up to Jews to move there to escape the war, so they snuck in. So Jews in Palestine would run out into the water when a ship of Jews trying to enter Israel was approaching, switch clothing with them, and then carry them to land. This was their way of trying to confuse the English as to which people were legally allowed to be there or not (and it worked for a while). This is a picture of the group similating how Jews in Palestine carried those trying to enter to shore, and we had this lesson on the very beaches that they used 60 years ago.

You might be asking what I did about my regular school since I got to Israel in February. Basically, you have 1-on-1 tutoring in up to 3 classes from your regular high school and some high schools gave students credit for things like history and English to accord for the core class we were taking in Israel. Also, you live in a dorm, much like college. I was in Friedman dorm with all of the other USY High kids (the students in the other 2 dorms didn’t enroll through USY and were traditionally less observant). The dorm was two floors and had two common areas and a kitchenette area, as well as a madrich and a madricha (a male and a female RA). Each room had three or four people living in it, and it had a bedroom and a room with desks. We did have curfew and a time by which the door to the dorm was locked and alarmed, but we had a lot of freedom. In the afternoons we could go into Hod Hasharon and shop or have lunch, things like that. It was really cool to feel like you were part of a town, because you were living there, not just visiting for a few days.

My trip to Israel really changed me as a person and it made Israel a large part of my heart. It has been almost 5 years since I have been to Israel and I still think about memories of my trip, and I still wish I could go back to support the country that means so much to me. And I think that maybe for my next trip I’ll be a little more laid back, and go as an educated tourist.

Sidenote: what else would you like to hear about?? Please leave a comment to tell me what my next post should be about. THANKS!!

Saturday, October 15, 2005


So when I was younger and people told me there was a church youth group it seemed to be for mostly "losers" and it was just kids from their church doing things. Jewish youth groups are very different. I think most practicing Jewish kids grow up in a youth group because it serves a different purpose - for most Jewish kids they don't grow up going to schools that are very Jewish and youth groups are a way for them to meet other Jewish teens and to form a connection with them and in turn with their religion. Most of these youth groups are national so you have the opportunity to meet kids from everywhere, not just your synagogue.

For me that youth group was USY, United Synagogue Youth, and it defined and created a lot of the person that I am. If Judaism set me apart in school, it helped me find “popularity” and amazing friends in USY. The youth group was both religous activities, social activities, and events that were a mix of the two. My synagogue didn’t have a strong chapter (meaning we didn’t have a lot of active members or do that much programming), but my regional organization changed my life. The region was comprised of Jewish teens from all over New England (Senior USY being high school students and Junior USY being 7th and 8th graders), and NERUSY was one of 17 regions in the United States and Canada that made up the national USY organization (NERUSY stands for New England Region USY).

USY gave me several things. To begin with, it was the first place I felt like Jewish kids could be “cool” and I could really be friends with them outside of Hebrew School. Most of my best friends in high school were from USY because we understood each other and had so many similarities in life experiences and general interests. USY was also one of the first times (besides summer camp) that I really had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other teens like myself who had to blend their religious and non-Jewish lives together. I also got to learn more about my religion from people way more knowledgeable than myself. I was able to become a leader, serving as chapter president, New England Regional Senior Programming chair (so I planned events for seniors in high school and a big senior convention), New England Regional Encampment co-chair (planning a week long summer camp for everyone in NERUSY), and serve as committee chair for the National USY Convention when it was held in Boston my junior year of high school. Most of all, USY taught me how to be myself by teaching me who I really was.

After high school I have continued being involved with the organization that I think is so important in shaping youth Jewish lives. For the last two years I have staffed the National USY Convention for a week in December. For the past three summers I have adjusted by role as Encampment Co-chair and become the Assistant Director of NERUSY’s Encampment program. This is something extremely important to me because I love getting to plan every aspect of such an amazing religious and social week-long event, and over the past four years that I have worked on camp we have seen the numbers and program reviews increase. Lastly, in the summer before junior year of college I had the opportunity to staff USY on Wheels, which is a summer program run nationally by USY. I took 38 juniors and seniors in high school from all over the country across the United States and Canada, by bus, for six and a half weeks. It was an amazing and intense experience where I learned just as much as they did. The main point of the trip is to see the country and all it’s sights while becoming a family with strangers (which REALLY happens), while also learning that you can either find Judaism anywhere or create it by maintaining your traditions (there is really a lot longer of an explanation but that’s good for now). Below is just one of the hundreds of pictures I have of that summer. It's a picture of the group outside Cereal City, a tour for Kellogg's factory where we also learned about how their products are Kosher.

So even though it sounded in previous posts like being Jewish was really hard, USY is an extremely important part of my life that has shaped me in so many ways. And it’s something that I would have never been able to be a part of had it not been for my family’s strong religious identity. (By the way- my parents both grew up in USY and even met at a National USY convention.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Comment Reply

Hi All-
Just a quick response to a couple of my comments.

In terms of if I’ve ever wanted to the "rebel" and become less religious... I have really never wanted to become less religious, with the exception of the fact that I ride on Shabbat and my parent's don't. But yes, I did go through my little "rebellious" state which is actually quite funny since it isn't very rebellious at all... once at summer camp in like the 7th grade my friend and I got a staff member to get us a pepperoni pizza. I don’t know if it was the best thing ever because the pizza place was great, because we were so used to eating awful camp food, or because it was rebelling but that pizza was REALLY good. Don’t try to tempt me now though; I’m over the whole pepperoni craving.

To answer Kara’s two questions: I write G-d instead of writing out the whole word because there is something in the Torah that says you shouldn’t take G-d’s name in vain and that you should never write or say in unless its in prayer, and several other notes about the do’s and don’ts. There is actually a lot of debate about if the non-Hebrew writing of the word should be included but it’s just something I’ve always done. In terms of alcohol, with the exception of Passover (when you can’t have anything with yeast, i.e. beer), any kind of alcohol pretty much goes, except for ceremonies. For prayers and ceremonies and the like the wine you use must be Kosher, and it’s marked the same way that Kosher food is. And it is more than just Manishevitz. But, for example, my mom will say Kiddish (the blessing over the wine) with Kosher wine and then switch over to regular wine, that’s perfectly fine (good question though).

Lastly, next week’s post well start going into why I have really loved being Jewish and my experiences so the answers to all those questions are coming. Thanks!!

L'Shanah Tovah!

Translation? Happy New Year! Well literally it means “for a good year” which is shortened from the whole greeting L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatemt, “may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” Right now I am at home in Boston with my family for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It began Monday night at sundown and will end Wednesday night at sundown. The reason for the sundown stuff is because that’s how Jewish days work. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar and new day starts at nightfall (which is the same reason why Shabbat is from Friday night at sundown Saturday night).

Although I have seemed like the be-all in Jewish knowledge to this point, I will forewarn you all that my explanation may be splotchy so I invite you to ask questions. The Hebrew calendar has now begun a new year, with Rosh Hashanah literally meaning “the first of the year.” It is one of the holiest days of the year and marks a new beginning, a clean slate for the New Year. For this reason, white is a sort of symbolic color for the holiday. The clergy (Rabbi and Cantor) wear white robes (they don’t usually wear robes at all) and the Torah scrolls are dressed in white (as apposed to the usual colored coverings). The white symbolizes purity and reminds us of G-d’s promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow.

Rosh Hashanah begins the 10 Days of Repentance, leaving up to Yom Kippur, the absolute holiest day of the Jewish year. During this time it is traditional for Jews around the world to ask those around them for forgiveness for anything that they have done during the year that has caused hate or sadness to other people. I was always taught that you can’t just go and ask G-d for forgiveness because you committed the “sin” against other people. You are supposed to ask the person for forgiveness and if they say no ask again, only after they do not forgive you and you have given wholehearted effort can you then ask G-d for forgiveness instead. It is really not uncommon this time of year for me to get an email from friends stating something similar to what I offer you now: If I have done anything to hurt, upset or harm you in the past year, I ask you forgiveness and tell you that I strive to be a better person in the coming year. Since you are supposed to ask for forgiveness in the days leading to Yom Kippur, which literally means “The Day of Atonement” on that day your “fate” for the coming year is sealed in the book of life and happiness for the coming year (which is where the greeting that I opened this post with comes from). Even people who usually don’t attend services go on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is pretty much the strictest amount strict days and it is one day that I take very seriously. Part of this day (which this year falls October 13th) is a 25 hour fast from all food and drink for all those in physical health to fast and those over the age of 13. Also, you are supposed to reframe from all work (like “Shomar Shabbat” like I described in the previous post). I do follow this practice on Yom Kippur even though I don’t during the rest of the year. On Yom Kippur I won’t ride in a car or use electricity. Even “weirder” is that on Yom Kippur you aren’t supposed to bath (relax guys its only 24 hours), anoint oneself (like by wear fragrances and perfume) or wear any leather. These are all things I fallow because to me this is the most important day on the Jewish calendar. When I am at home we pretty much stay in temple most of the day but since I will be at school this year I am not positive what I am going to be doing.

Even though this post is amazingly long already (as usual) I am just going to leave you with a couple more traditional things I have been doing since it’s Rosh Hashanah. First off there is the blowing of the Shofar, the ram’s horn (which is the animal sent for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son Isaac), which is pictured below.

(ps this isn't a picture of my dad or anything, I just found it online haha). Although the bible doesn’t exactly say why we blow the Shofar is blown on both days of Rosh Hashanah for 100 “notes” and to end Yom Kippur and it is traditional said it was used to gather people together in the olden days so they’d know it was time to gather and repent. Next there is the tradition of Tashlikh (“casting off”), which I have myself done only twice. It involves a symbolic casting of our sins into a moving body of water (like that little river just past Ray Street down North College; I did it there two years ago), usually done with bread crumbs. Lastly is the tradition of apples and honey. This is to symbolize the sweetness of the holiday and the sweetness to come with the new years.

Alright, that’s all I have for now and I appreciate you reading all the way through. L’Shanah Tovah everyone!!
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